Thursday, April 1, 2010

Crisis and communication treading water?

Last night's Los Angeles City Council rejection of a rate hike for DWP customers is a prime example of why public relations is a much needed profession.

Communication was the driver in this issue. And, in the heat of the moment - when the dialogue reached "crisis" proportions - a lack of communication resulted in failure for one side.

Multiple parties had multiple agendas, viewpoints and positions. Each side was doing it's best to argue its point - either publicly or behind closed doors. There was a ton of information to share.

My political friends will say that shrewd negotiating skills - those possessed by lawyers and public affairs professionals - were the most critical factor in this process.

I disagree. All parties in this debate were out in the open on this one, they took the battle to the streets, to the news media, to any location that would give their side the advantage.

On a tactical level - a lawyer or political guru may bring tremendous resources to the table. On a political level - trades are being made. But in terms of gaining advantage, it comes down to communications and all the functions wrapped under the public relations umbrella.

This episode was about making a convincing argument. Start with the right key messages that resonate. Develop fact sheets and other materials to back up your point. Anticipate what the other sides will do and say and have "counter" statements ready. Look for other organizations to support your side. (The mayor pulled out Al Gore for this one). Figure out who will have the most credibility on the issue and place them before the public. Test the message. Rehearse because you will only get 30 seconds of TV news time and one paragraph in a story. Carry out a campaign to articulate your side. Engage the news media and other interested parties. Keep your message focused and clear - and don't waver. Anticipate course corrections.

This is public relations. It's not about "image" but about artfully and effectively communicating with the public. It's not about "spin" because in a debate like rate hikes - spin will get you crucified. It's about bringing out facts that, of course, support your side but more importantly reveal additional details that others (news media, the public, potential supporters) did not know and need to consider.

This was one very complex public relations effort because a lot was at stake and because multiple arguments were being made. A mayor who recently hired a pro-business "czar" is now proposing a rate hike that business groups said would create more layoffs and even force companies to leave town. It was a rate hike coming at a time when citizens are still eating meat loaf and baloney sandwiches and looking for work.

Slice up this classic public relations effort and you'll find the art of analyzing trends, predicting consequences, managing communications between a company/organization and the public, counseling, implementation and then moving into crisis mode.

In the final analysis, the winning side had the better public relations plan.

To its credit, the pro-hike side did try to communicate one of the more important facts - that the city is facing emission reduction mandates and there is a long lead time to achieve these requirements. But that was countered with: "well, let's see if we can postpone this until the economy improves." (Look at how this "let's defer" decision played out at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - when its board rejected a larger water rate hike a few years ago, only to later realize it was really needed and now they are playing catch-up in a down economy). The mayor tried to emphasize new green jobs from his proposal, but that was countered by questions of whether these were simply a transfer of existing jobs.

Communicating your side. It is: creating a strategy and incorporating the functions of communications, community relations, government affairs, media relations, speech writing and more.

Public relations.

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