Saturday, November 28, 2009

Muddy waters?

Public disclosure and public relations can and do co-exist. But in recent examples and with another "big game" at stake - the matter is not resolved by any stretch.

The health care debate has cast attention on deception and "front groups" created by the health care, insurance or pharmaceutical industries. A prominent public relations executive detailed at the 2009 PRSA conference why he left a cushy insurance industry job for this reason.

The next ethical spotlight could very well be cast in California in 2010.

California water wars are notorious. As soon as a drop falls from the skies and lands in the Golden State (as well as other Western states), it is "game on" for control.

California is "water rich" in the north and "people rich" in the south. Hence, the need to build canals to send water hundreds of miles from mountains and rivers to population centers. The most notable skirmish is the city of Los Angeles' epic takeover of Owens Valley water rights (as portrayed in "Chinatown").

Numerous books have been written about how various parties - from the state's large farming concerns to urban water agencies to well-organized environmental groups - wage intense, high-priced battles over this precious resource. I once worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which was created to build and manage a 200+ mile pipeline to transport water from the Colorado River to one of the largest populations in the world.

This year, California's lawmakers passed a series of monumental bills designed to protect the major faucet in our our massive water system - the Delta.

This was big. This was huge. It's been more than 30 years since acts of similar magnitude were accomplished.

Passage came after major political battles. I mean, major political battles. This column can't adequately summarize the extent of these multiple negotiations except to say that anytime you mix legal rights (like property rights), the country's biggest agriculture concerns, some of the most cunning environmental groups, millionaires, lawyers, lobbyists, the governor, public affairs strategists - each with their own agenda to carry - it is, well, manic and complicated. Trades and favors are exchanged in mostly painful ways.

California's water picture involves a mix of public relations, public affairs and lobbying. And, money. Water is perhaps one of the most complex issues in California.

Given the stakes, many public relations and public affairs firms in CA have been called upon to develop and implement various campaigns.

Now comes an article from an independent news organization about "front groups" apparently created and managed by public affairs firms or similar interests. A few "Friends of the.." popped up in the latest CA water battle. This is old stuff in California. With this state's predisposition for legislation through ballot initiative, we've seen these "Friends of..." or "Citizens for...." groups suddenly emerge to support their side of the issue. Heck, voters in California will see four or five "firefighter" organizations endorsing ballot measures or candidates. Firefighters consistently earn the most trust among citizens, so their endorsements are continually sought. But it's now difficult to figure out which firefighter group to follow.

While not new, front groups can pose issues in terms of public disclosure or creating public confusion. The Public Relations Society of America has guidelines, ethical standards and periodic bulletins that practitioners should follow when conducting business on behalf of a client, company or organization.

One thing should be clear: A public affairs firm or public relations agency is best suited to develop and manage an issues campaign.

In most cases, a firm is hired by an existing organization and there is no question whose side is being promoted. But in cases where multiple entities or individuals have a "case" to make and no organization exists, a "Friends of.." group is created. Or, call them "front groups." Now comes the tricky part in terms of disclosure - and the source of the recent news examination as to who funds these groups and their true intentions.

"Pop-up" groups that don't fully disclose their financial supporters or intentions cast an unwanted negative shadow over the other organizations that do disclose. They also can "muddy the waters" in a legitimate debate of the issues.

As the media director for a CA ballot initiative in the 1990s, I made it clear who I represented and their financial support. Once I disclosed this with reporters and editorial boards (and disclosure was made upfront), I was able to have a better discussion of the issue with news organizations. I believe our honesty - combined with a well crafted campaign - earned us points at the polls.

As 2010 approaches in California, we now brace for more "pop-up"groups to form in the debate over an $11 billion bond measure to fund major water projects in the state. Yes, I said "$11 billion." On the ballot in November 2010.

This is the final piece of the massive battle over how to fix the state's water system. With this kind of money at stake, it's easy to conclude that my public affairs colleagues will be gainfully employed next year.

Already, we have seen some groups forming their opposition to the measure, or using the bond issue to redirect public debate toward their issues. Strategies are being formed. Money collecting has begun to pay for advertisements and public affairs strategists.

Confusion is ahead. Scare tactics are inevitable.

The question relevant to the public relations profession and the hundreds of public affairs professionals doing business in CA is whether all front groups and organizations provide full disclosure. It would be sad if an agency or strategist is gambling or taking a calculation: Either that mainstream news organizations no longer do this kind of investigative reporting or, even if they do publish a "money trail" article, no one cares.

The CA electorate - and the public relations profession - will be better off with full disclosure.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My podcast about the past, future PR


Here is a podcast from my interview at the 2009 PRSA International Conference in San Diego where I offered some discussion about the state of PR, the future of PR and the exciting announcements we made.

Community Outreach RFP due Dec.09

The County of San Bernardino has issued an RFP for community outreach services related to its Department of Airports.

Public relations professionals who have subscribed to the free state BidSync services will find that this RFP is only posted on the BidLync paid RFP search service. (Ouch, $400 a year!).

But with a little searching (thank you Google), you can find the public posting here.

Submission is due Dec. 30, 2009.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Value of public relations

Once again, the public relations industry finds it must defend its value as a legitimate business for government and public agencies.

This will be the first in a series of occasional entries about demonstrating the true value of public relations.

The good news is the Public Relations Society of America recently launched an advocacy effort, called "The Business Case for Public Relations," that should "level" the discussion about an important, international industry sector.

A recent attack arose at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. (Full disclosure: I was the Media Services Section Manager in the External Affairs department at MWD for seven years until 2008. The section is, essentially, the public relations arm of External Affairs, running the press office, publications, etc. And, I chose to retire to enable me to take advantage of my "big" pension of $1,500 a month - after taxes. For these reasons this entry won't attempt to justify the now-dead pension change. Well, just one comment: Realize those pension benefits are taxed. Reduced pensions will mean less tax revenue.)

Articles in the Orange County Register and columns in the Daily News and San Diego Union Tribune, along with some tasty blogs, all used common "action" words to describe public relations in a negative light. "High priced consultant." "Politically connected." "Spin." "Slick public relations campaigns." And so on.

When I was a journalist, I was among the many who held a healthy skepticism of public relations specialists calling me with "information" or a "story idea." But, that is the nature of journalists. They are skeptical of everyone.

But when a healthy skepticism moves over to easily thrown and outdated accusations in public, the only ones served are those pulling the school fire alarm during finals. It is all too easy to take a swing at "PR" because, gee, aren't these guys simply trying to spin us? And, wow, look at how much money they are being paid. Why do any pure, deep examination of "why" a public relations consultant was hired? Why examine the information that actually is being disseminated - let's just focus on the "hiring" of a public relations firm. It's much easier to capitalize on old images to get a reader nodding their head. Lazy reporting. Lazy editorializing. An easy way to get your story noticed.

So, public relations professionals, don't quietly take our lumps. Perpetuation of bad, incorrect images will create hesitation among potential clients. Challenge the "conventional" wisdom.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time to go

So, we're beyond the fence-sitters and the financially strapped.

Now, I'm left with only this: Will you kick yourself for missing it?

I'm speaking, of course, about the PRSA 2009 International Conference set to begin this weekend in San Diego.

If you haven't heard the latest news: Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a last-minute addition to the Monday general session. Whoa. How many times have we seen the Chairman at an event like this? How many times has he been speaking in public?

The other last-minute addition is to Sunday's opening session when guest speaker Arianna Huffington interviews health-care advocate Wendell Potter, APR.

OK, so the military has one of the biggest public affairs/public information departments and the head guy is speaking to us. On top of that, we have one of the biggest "insiders" to how the health care debate is being scripted.

And, you are not going?

Single-day tickets are still available. Bargain hotel room rates still available. Airline travel is still cheap.

You have to ask yourself: What is the one thing that will give me a truly competitive advantage going into 2010? How about this conference?

80+ sessions over four days. Exclusive speakers. Networking with thousands of your colleagues. No audio tapes for sale - so you must go in person to gain the advantage.