Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael was a great show

True to some of the features that Michael Jackson held - being a showman and knowing how to create the next big thing to capture our attention - Hollywood was a bizarre scene on the day of his death Thursday.

I was there for a meeting, but could have easily had been drawn there to pay respects. As the sun was setting outside the Chinese Theater, Hollywood Boulevard was blocked for the premier of Bruno. Sasha Cohen's entrance, on a silver tank with scantly clad women marching behind him, probably would have garnered a nod of approval from MJ.

But, the premier blocked MJ's memory. The lights, barricades and stages meant no one could get to MJ's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not for several hours.

I'm curious to know whether Cohen's team thought about cancelling the premier or at least getting the stage and lights removed quicker so fans could be at MJ's star?

More scenes from Hollywood that night: street musicians quickly adapted and began playing MJ songs on saxophone or guitar. Hawkers raised framed photos of MJ. All of this began unfolding within a few hours of his death. It was interesting to see the look on everyone's faces. Not all the tourists understood what was going on around them - they had not heard of his death yet. They soon figured it out and were in disbelief.

More bizarre scenes: Once I figured MJ's star would be blocked for a while, I went to my car. A woman with a small pet dog had somehow got the dog stuck on the parking lot escalator at the Hollywood and Highlands complex. The poor woman was desparately holding her dog, trying to get the stuck leg out, while a team of security guards simply looked on. It held up pedestrian traffic for a while and created a huge crowd of onlookers. Did not stick around long enough to see if the dog was rescued without harm.

So, I went home and played MJ music all the way. Sad. Sad. Sad.

The passing of Michael Jackson means there will be a very long gap until the world sees another superstar musician/entertainer who brought the world together like he did.

And, we will start living with comparisons. If the questions about drugs (painkillers) are true, it could remind us of Belushi's and Elvis' deaths.

Too soon, Michael.

Monday, June 15, 2009

$1 million for a parade in a broke town?

Too many fans want a Lakers victory parade this Wednesday (June 17). That response likely will muffle any anger and resentment over the $1 million the city will pay to have the parade.

Yet, the city and the Lakers must consider the long-term consequences, rather than live for the moment.

((UPDATE: Today (Monday, 4 p.m.) The Mayor announced he is seeking private donations to pay for the city's share and believes he will get all the needed money.))

read on original posting....

From a public relations professional perspective, this one is truly a gamble both in terms of reputation (Lakers) and further decay in public trust (City).

The arguments against are already being made.

For instance, why must the city shell out $1 million when, say, teachers are being laid off?

Why can't the Lakers, who will reap a windfall from the NBA Championship, pay the entire estimated $2 million it will cost to pay for extra police, traffic control, etc.? (Granted, some of the windfall will be spent paying on clauses in contracts that reward a trip to the finals. And the owners will likely need to shell out some dollars to keep a couple of key players who are free agents).

The question before the Lakers is whether they truly risk losing millions of dollars worth in earned reputation. Or, to look at it another way: Will $2 million earn them a lasting, positive bond with millions of fans? Will the city significantly hurt its chances to win future votes from its residents by shelling out $1 million for a parade in a down economy?

How easy a call is this from a public relations perspective? Let's consider the potential scenarios.

The Lakers pay all the costs of the parade.

The players and the owner of an incredible franchise could score significant benefit from showing a little bit more compassion in a down economy. While we're at it, let's ask the owner of the building to chip in, too.

The city of Los Angeles is hurting. Fans are hurting. Unemployment rates in CA are among the highest in the country. Teachers are being laid off and class sizes are doubling in some schools. The risk of antagonizing a large sector of the population is higher than normal.

Some of the biggest Laker fans are those who will never be able to afford a ticket to a game. That kind of loyalty is hard to achieve, but can be quickly lost with a few bad moves.

If left as is - with the city paying $1 million for what seems like a frivolous one-time event when compared to the longer-term pain suffered by teachers - the anger and finger-pointing could last for months. Perhaps all the way into next season.

The anger could go off in several directions - at the city, the players, the team's owner.

Let's evaluate one source of that anger. All too often we hear debates about why professional athletes get paid millions while some of our most important individuals - teachers - get by on scraps.

Granted, it's an old debate and there are valid arguments and justifications about professional athlete salaries. Yet, it's still a comparison that conjures up feelings about what is right. These feelings can linger for years. Let's not forget there are thousands across the country who still boycott baseball because of the player's strike just a few years ago.

This same sentiment, the same kind of argument is starting to bubble up today. On one side we have highly paid athletes - on the other we have teachers in classrooms filled to capacity. Depending on our budget issues and the amount of coverage given to athletes' salaries, the sentiments could last for a while.

If you are a professional basketball player in the largest media market in the world, why add more fuel to this fire?

For the city, the matter comes down to earning broad, long-term support from voters. Do city officials want to see protest signs during the parade? Do they want TV crews to interview teachers, police officers, mothers with strollers -- who showed up for the celebration only to spew anger at the city for paying for a parade?

Or would you rather see nothing but "Thank You, Lakers" and "We Love You Lakers" signs?

Now, as a public relations professional, it would be our responsibility - if we were working for the city or the Lakers - to point out all the net positive impacts the Lakers have on the city. I just have to throw this in here, because it's our job to communicate our client's side. It would go something like this: The Lakers are a net positive economic force in the city. They generate millions of dollars in retail sales from clothing alone. They employ hundreds directly and thousands indirectly. We also know that the Staples Center was a catalyst for the incredible downtown investment that is now highlighted by LA Live.

OK. But in this economy, in this setting - it's a very difficult journey to come up with arguments and reasons to counter the darkness surrounding the city budget - and laid off teachers and higher classroom sizes, and reduced social services and, and.....

So, where does this leave a city that wants to celebrate?

If the Lakers really don't have another $1 million, then why not scale down the parade? It is, after all, a down economy and most everyone should "get it." A more modest celebration in a recession will be understood. That is a much easier message to convey, a simpler feeling to convey because the public is ready and willing to accept it.

A celebration is a celebration, after all.

The question now is whether it's a decadent and extravagant one, and will be ridiculed rather than remembered.

Again, think about the long-term consequences. Look beyond the parade.

After Wednesday's parade is over. After the warm and fuzzy feelings quickly dissolve into our normal worries about putting food on the table, after the smiling faces in photos and on TV fade away, after the confetti is swept up and we hang up our 24 jerseys because Manny's back in the lineup - one piece of this parade will linger and haunt City Hall for a long time.

Try this: "Well, we can't pay for firefighting services, but we could sure afford a parade."

Fill in your own: "Well, we couldn't afford ----------, but we could sure afford a parade."

Trying to defend spending $1 million of city money we don't have on a parade in this economy is much harder work with longer-term pain that trying to bring everyone's thinking along about why our parade was just a bit smaller than the last one.

The reasons for a $2 million parade may sound good now - to those who are supporting it.

These reasons just won't make sense six months from now when the city puts up a ballot measure, or DWP raises rates or more teacher layoffs are announced.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Just like Nevada's water

When we launched the "California Friendly(r)" campaign at Metropolitan Water District a few years ago, we emphasized that we were "not like Las Vegas" and going to extremes to save water.

Of course, it helps when you are not in a drought and don't have to shout "warning" in your message.

Back then (was it only 2003?), we considered those extremes to be the "cash for grass" rebates offered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, giving homeowners money for ripping up their lawns forever. Southern Nevada provides the water to Las Vegas, and was being forced at the turn of the century to deal with massive residential growth and limited water supplies.

To us at MWD, we felt our California Friendly approach was, well, more friendly. Through advertising, public relations and media relations efforts, we were successful in convincing consumers that they did not have to sacrifice beauty in their landscapes to save water.

Through this persuasion technique, we appeared to have removed the "punitive" stigma associated with water conservation - that consumers were "losing" something. The old "xeriscape" image was still haunting us - one that promoted rock gardens, ghastly looking stick bushes and cacti. California Friendly provided a nice comeback, a very positive new image. Even Sunset magazine approved!

In Las Vegas, we reasoned back then, homeowners were losing in the transition from lush landscapes to bare-looking desert layouts. We proudly, but quietly, told ourselves that we didn't need to do that in Southern California. We could still reduce large sums of water used for irrigation - and keep our landscapes looking beautiful.

The plan worked in a non-drought period. Consumers liked the "soft-sell" approach and we began to see major changes in behavior. More "California Friendly" plants - either native ones or low-water-using non-natives - were selling well at retail nurseries. Rebates for smart water controllers were flying out the door. Major homebuilders used our California Friendly designs at their models. California Friendly was even featured as part of an "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" episode.

Fast forward to today. California's drought is in the third year, reservoirs are dangerously low, court restrictions won't allow us to get all the water that is rightfully ours from the north and mandatory restrictions are in place in cities through Southern California.

And now, this. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced Monday a "cash for grass" rebate program.

So much for the friendly approach. Good thing we didn't boast too loudly at MWD.

Although the LADWP's press release emphasizes the replacement program wants to keep landscapes looking lush in the city, it will be interesting to see how consumers respond. Will they tear out just a couple of square feet of lawn? If someone rips out their entire front lawn and put in nothing but natives, will they suffer the same backlash and inter-governmental turmoil that families suffered in Glendale? (The water department encouraged it, but the code enforcement folks took a family to court). Or, will they run out of money like MWD did recently for its artificial turf replacement rebate program?

Any large-scale water conservation program is complicated and requires well-thought-out strategies. Consumers want to save water, but they also want to do it in a way that is easy - very easy. MWD's research showed that consumers simply want to be told where to go, and what to buy. ("Go to Home Depot, look for this plant or that sprinkler nozzle.") Step-by-step videos are needed, in some cases. There will be many questions, like is it better that I install artificial turf or take advantage of the "cash for grass" rebate?

And since we're speaking about how best to save water, how many of you would go the extremes that Los Angeles Times reporter Susan Carpenter went through to recycle her "gray water" at home?

If prior experience tells us anything, it will take a multi-faceted program to induce consumers to participate in this and future rebate programs to save water. For starters, there is still a large percentage of people who simply don't believe there is a drought, or believe that water is theirs for the taking and shouldn't be restricted.

LADWP has and will need to take several steps. Penalty rates will begin to have an affect on those who don't conserve.

Keep the information flowing. For starters, look at Southern Nevada's Web site to get some ideas on how to make it easy for consumers and to answer their questions. remains one of the most comprehensive sites for water conservation information.

We're two days into mandatory restrictions in Los Angeles, and several days or months into it at other cities in CA. Will permanent changes occur? Or, once the drought is over, will consumers revert to water-wasting ways?

Check back at the end of summer. Or, perhaps, next year at this time if we have a really bad winter.