Thursday, May 20, 2010

50 years ago


The word instantly suggests someone who is your equal: In ability, qualifications, social status, age, background and so on. In Great Britain and Ireland, a peer is any member of the five degrees of nobility. (What are the degrees? See below).

In the profession of public relations, we thoroughly enjoy our peers. Why? There are multiple reasons:
  • We share common traits and similar daily challenges

  • We're equally motivated to represent clients and carry out campaigns

  • We constantly seek opportunities to meet, to share ideas or to commiserate

The last reason my father knew well. To Robert B. Wolcott Jr., the value of his peers was very clear. As the founder of his own public relations agency, "Bob" Wolcott had two peer groups: Fellow CEOs at the many companies he represented and fellow PR executives.

The first peer group was critical to his business. CEOs at major national and international firms like Voit Rubber, Westin Hotels, General Telephone, MGM, Sunkist, Bank of America and others had to believe that Bob was one of them. It was critically important for a "PR Man" (As they were known back then) to earn the trust of a CEO. Like now, public relations was under scrutiny for its value to a company. So, Bob had to demonstrate he was part of the CEO peer group. That meant Bob had to talk and act just like a CEO. He had to understand the complexities of running a company, from the outside forces that influenced corporate decision making to knowing who to trust as your lieutenants to making the right hires. That's why, for example, he joined the major business clubs, like Los Angeles' famed California Club. Within these walnut-walled, high ceiling halls, Fortune 500 executives mingled with business objectives in mind. It was a place to be seen, to interact among your peers, and to make deals happen. Bob also insisted that he had direct access to CEOs at his client companies. His advice and strategy must be shared with the most important decision maker - directly, at an executive-to-executive level. A direct meeting was the only way to clearly demonstrate his full value to a client company. It was a business rule that served him well - both in building a respectable client base for his company, and later in life when he was a solo practitioner and being hired directly by CEOs for his counsel.

The second peer group was equally important. More than a half-century ago, the top 100 public relations executives in the United States knew each other very well because they created a "club" called the PR Seminar. As a peer group, they sought a special type of annual gathering with the appropriate level of programing. If you are running a PR agency or a communications division at a major corporation, your issues are much different than, say, what is facing the account supervisor at an agency. World events, public policy and economic indicators were - and remain - more important to the executives and their daily decision-making.

Consider this entry in my father's journal about why he enjoyed the annual PR Seminar peer group meetings:

"...I've always labeled them as a 21/2-day brain stretcher. Why? The subject matter was rarely about public relations. The sessions were devoted to all sorts of corporate subjects, government activities and the like....we had speakers the likes of Don Rumsfield, Don Moynihan, Reg Jones - GE's CEO, famed NY Times Editor Scotty Reston and many more. I remember an engrossing 3-hour session led by Art Miller, the widely respected Harvard Law professor."

And another reason:

"Another major benefit was mixing with your peers. I can't tell you how many times I got calls from (peers) asking me about people, organizations, etc., in this area. I, in turn, could always call them. One time, a client was having difficulty getting to the right person at Kodak. So, I called Dave Metz, the SVP of PR, and he gave me the name and that immediately removed my client's roadblock problem."

Fifty years ago, Bob Wolcott created the Public Relations Society of America's "Counselors Academy" so executive members of PRSA had their own peer group. Back then, PRSA needed this "club" to compete with similar peer groups such as the PR Seminar, the Arthur Page Society, the National Investor Relations Institute and others.

Forming the Counselors Academy probably helped my father's path to becoming PRSA's president in 1966. Counselors was the first "special section" to be created within PRSA. Today, PRSA has 16 sections, covering various specialties and peer groups from Sports and Entertainment to Technology to Public Affairs. It was inevitable to see more sections. The public relations profession has grown in substantial numbers over the past 50 years, so it is only natural that we seek a way to remain within the "right sized" peer group that cater to our specialty(ies).

As they gather in North Carolina this week for the annual Counselors Academy conference, my colleagues will be seeking the same thing my father did 50 years ago. A once-a-year opportunity to exchange ideas among peers and an opportunity to "stretch one's brain" away from the daily grind of running an agency or division. Nestled within the dense Pisgah National Forest among the Appalachian hills, there will be CEOs of well known PR agencies, solo counselors, the heads of major PR departments within corporations - all networking and seeking knowledge to be better company executives and communication professionals. (Sadly, I couldn't make it).

As a relative newcomer to Counselors, I am just getting started with a new group. I know there is a lot to look forward to - from my peers. Already, I've made many new important friends across the country. I've called on them, and they've called on me. I've been encouraged to be more entrepreneurial. I've been exposed to all sort of new ways to think like an executive. Thanks, dad, for making this happen.

Trivia answer: Five degrees of nobility are: duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Water over the dam?

In six months, Californians will vote on one of the biggest public water bonds in the nation's history.

However, this week, in central California - the election is now.

Hundreds of the state's water leaders will gather in Monterey for the semi-annual conference of the Association of California Water Agencies. ACWA represents the largest percentage of water interests (hundreds of private water companies, groundwater groups and a few others are generally not members of ACWA).

The bond will be the talk of this conference. It will be the rallying cry. Behind most presentations will be THE BOND.

Although some bond election efforts began months ago (and another push naturally starts after the June primary is done), the REALLY BIG push begins this week once the state's major water players leave Monterey, armed with inspiration, key messages and, hopefully, a better sense of how the campaign will be waged.

Gauging from prior gatherings, big news may come out of the conference. But, I predict, an end to the drought won't be declared here - nor anywhere else in 2010. (I'll explain "why" further down).

This "non-news" or silence could be the loudest and most deciding factor in the November election, and will be important for state water leaders to understand during all the speeches in Monterey this week.

Snow has built up on the Sierra Mountains, putting pressure on the Schwarzenegger administration to declare an end to the state's three-year drought.

Of course, since this is a blog about public relations, it is interesting to see how multiple sides are waging their battles over the $11+ billion bond to improve the state's water supplies. If you are keeping track (and more of that here), below are some of the tactics and arguments in favor or opposed:
  • Some unions oppose because debt payments on the bond will cut into the states general fund and, therefore, affect the size of future state wage increases and benefits;

  • A leading farm organization opposes because it is trying to leverage some guarantees - totally unrelated to water - from the state Legislature in exchange for a support position;

  • Many environmental groups and some politicians allege the bond is filled with pork projects (CA Legislature admits this) and will only lead to further environmental damage (dams?) without securing more water conservation (read: growth continues in CA).
From an "advantage" standpoint, declaring an end to the drought would likely have significant implications on the success of the bond's passage. As someone directly involved in one (failed) state initiative and behind the scenes in a few others, and as someone whose career involves understanding public sentiment, having a hammer like a "drought" hanging over one's head is extremely helpful in trying to win favor for a water bond. It also helps to have a drought-themed message to neutralize the bond has too much pork drumbeat. If the drought is declared over, then bond proponents will be left with using a bag full of less-dramatic, less-compelling and certainly less romantic arguments and messages.

The last water bond in 2006 won because proponents used "protecting nature," "clean water" and "saving our coastlines" as key message points. Who wouldn't love these images floating around in the minds of the electorate as they head to the polls? What's more: Writers of previous initiatives secured endorsements from environmental groups, like The Nature Conservancy, because the bond measures included features that they wanted. And, there were not really any lawmakers who could vocalize opposition to a point of being noticed.

Yet, this year, environmentalists and a few lawmakers are taking various shots at the November water bond, and it's getting some play in the news media. The good news for supporters is that most of these attacks are technical in nature. They are arguing the finer points of CA's water complex system - and history. Complexity and detail are not going to win elections because they only confuse and alienate voters (and the news media). Old battles are not to be fought here, lads.

What will decide the bond are more traditional factors, such as:

  • Will the economy be upbeat? In a good economy, voters feel less reluctant to vote against money-related ballot measures. Currently, we're trending to better times in November;

  • Endorsements. Can opponents join forces and have their arguments heard in a unified voice over the roar of a well-funded proponent campaign? Not likely;

  • Turnout. This is a mostly GOP-supported bond in a year with the governorship at stake. If a GOP candidate wins for governor, it's likely the bond will do well. Although we have leading Dems supporting this bond, it's still a partisan election;

  • Local. The battle for this bond will be waged in the backyards of every water agency and state legislative district. If proponents do a good job explaining how this bond will benefit "my" community, it will pass, and;

  • Money. The last water bond passed with more than $30 million in outreach and advertising. My guess: the November water bond will need at least a $50 million election budget to win. (Interesting to watch: The "Save Our Water" campaign is ramping up again this year. It wasn't around in the last water bond election. It is modestly funded. Will these water conservation message have an influence on the bond?).
Now, before someone reads this column and says, "You see, those PR folks want to keep the drought around just to win the water bond," let me offer some science and other factors about why the drought won't be over anytime soon (at least not in 2010):

  • Although we have a large snowpack, the DWR already is predicting that a large amount of runoff will be absorbed back into a very dry watershed even before it reaches rivers and other surface water sources that feed our state system. So, 140+ percent of snowpack won't translate into 140+ percent of water into the state system;

  • The snowpack will be enough to give us a normal supply year, but not enough to refill our depleted reservoirs. (See "court restrictions" below);

  • One good year does not end a drought. This is the case in the upper Colorado River watershed, which is still experiencing an extended drought in spite of two "above-average" years of rainfall, and;

  • Although not part of the typical drought equation, court orders restricting water flows out of the Delta will limit supplies to cities and farms regardless of how much snow rests in the Sierras. Declaring a drought over with court orders still in place will create serious confusion in this important election year.

See you in Monterey and on the campaign trail.