Friday, November 26, 2010

Appearances and Opinions

Two reporters. Two water stories. Same newspaper. Much different writing styles.

And the result?

On Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the proposed canal or tunnel around the Sacramento Delta. In this story, the reporter draws focus on the state and federal pumps as the main reason for negative impacts on Delta wildlife, although recent science is indicating that ammonium from agriculture runoff is perhaps having a bigger impact. The reporter acknowledges there are other "players" causing problems, the reporter chooses to paint the pumps as "the most conspicuous villains."

Conspicuous villains?

The next day, the LA Times publishes a story about another water CA water canal. Although the focus of this story is safety, the tone of describing this water system is much different. The reporter describes this water system as "an engineering, hydrological and agricultural wonder." Yet, anyone who has involved in water issues will tell you that this canal also has its environmental baggage, particularly being another "straw" that takes water out of the Colorado River and leads to downstream environmental issues in Mexico.

Engineering wonder?

Two different reporters. Same topic. Same newspaper. Vastly different writing approaches.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Here's a tricky question

It seems I wasn't alone.

The Better Business Bureau is a "non-profit" organization that issues letter ratings to businesses reflecting how they treat consumer, customers and vendors. These ratings apply to all types of businesses, including public relations agencies such as mine. (I happen to have an A- rating).

Yet, where is the oversight for an organization that hires telemarketers to hound businesses with high-pressure tactics to sign up for memberships? Following an investigative piece on ABC's "20/20" program, the Los Angeles Times reported on this and the high salaries earned by some BBB executives.

Ever since I formed The Wolcott Company more than two years ago, I've been hounded by the BBB Southern California chapter. They found me through my membership at a local chamber of commerce. And, boy, were these telemarketers good at their job. They offered all sorts of reasons why I should pay a membership ($400), starting with this - a membership - is the primary way they produce income. So, they started with the "poor is me" approach.

As a solo PR consultant, I calmly informed the BBB telemarketer that my reputation was based on my own personal reputation that I had carefully crafted and managed over nearly 20 years of being in the business. But that launched an entire different tactic for the telemarketer about other reasons I should join. Most of this reasoning was flawed. However, I recall my dad, a PR leader and owner of his own firm, mentioning he supported the BBB. Back then (1970s), I can only guess the BBB was a different organization. So, based on my dad's memories of "supporting" the BBB, I thought I would "test" a membership for one year. With some reluctance.

After a year, I let the membership expire. And, thus, began the hounding. Over the past 12-14 months I have been called about a dozen times and my responses have become increasingly R-rated. Despite my pleas to have my name removed from their call list, I still get called. The last one began with "Well, we see you've been checked out by 22 people and we would love to tell them more, but your membership is.." If I did this to my potential customers, I'm sure they would complain to the BBB and my rating would suffer.

As the ABC report highlights, the BBB of Southern California essentially ran a "pay to play" operation. This is pretty evident given my last phone call from them. I can only assume I have an A- because I'm not currently paying a membership.

Now comes the damage control. I searched, but could not find an AOR for the Southern California bureau. However, they do issue a lot of news items on their website, suggesting they have an AOR and a great in-house staff.

The BBB of Southern California has two major crises to deal with - the salary of their top executive and their membership tactics. It will be interesting to see how this one is handled - especially given the BBB's reputation is based on "rating" others on their business practices. This is an incredibility HUGE credibility/trust/reputation matter to handle.

Any takers?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sticker shock for water

What happens when you blend a bad economy, labor costs, an effective outreach campaign and a drought?

Of course, higher water rates.

What happens over the next year or two will be worth a look for any PR professional and, for some, worth a deeper venture to offer your expertise. A bold prediction but this could be the next big "consumer experiment." The laboratory we like to call public sentiment could see some new tests, twists and turns from water rate increases.

Until now, water utilities have escaped serious consumer backlash from periodic rate increases. As the cheapest bill on one's desk, water doesn't generate the level of anger or frustration that, say, our phone bills do or another increase in health insurance. For sure, there have been sporadic consumer protests, but they remain scattered and short-lived.

Widespread consumer revolt is also muted because water is "local" and mostly unregulated. Gas and electric utilities have 100 times or greater number of customers, are more regulated and have major consumer watchdog groups going to battle over every rate increase request. Although private water companies are regulated and have combined larger customer bases, lower water bills generally keep consumers quiet.

Soon, I believe, the angry consumer will focus their frustration on the water bill.

Why? Water (and corresponding sewer) rate hikes have taken hold, a lawsuit already has been filed, a massive water bond was delayed but will likely come back, the economy is impacting water use, and perhaps some really big whammies are just around the corner.

It's easy to see that what we pay for water will soon be at the level of our other utility (commodity) bills. In some places, it's already at that level and if you own a large amount of land, the water bill could exceed the other utility costs.

It is a public relations conundrum.

On the one hand, some really effective public outreach campaigns in CA have successfully changed water behaviors. Although precise studies are lacking for the region, individual cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach are reporting per-capita reductions. A few dry years, nearly a decade of persistent water conservation messaging, the imposition of mandatory water restrictions (only water your lawn 3X a week), greater acceptance of "green" calls to action and some unique rebates have combined in such a way that consumers have permanently changed their water habits.

Now add a bad economy into the mix. Consider the number of homes lost in foreclosure, sitting idle without any water use. Consider former homeowners now renting homes - and choosing to save money by letting their lawns die ("Why should I care? It's either I'm paying the water bill or the rent - can't afford both" - actual quote from a renter I know).

When consumers use less water, that means a drop in revenue to water utilities that are stuck with huge fixed costs - like labor - and rising costs - like pipeline maintenance, power and water treatment supplies. Don't forget pension commitments, either.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (my former employer - and yes, full disclosure, I get a meager pension and health benefits through an option to "retire") already has raised rates nearly 50% and has no plans to stop. A preview of "how bad" water rates could be for nearly 20 million people may occur next week (Nov. 23) when a special board committee looks at the future. Just how do you handle a $120-150 million revenue shortfall?

What happens at MWD spreads out at practically every local water agency between Ventura and San Diego. The rate structure MWD adopts now will be felt in a year or two at the local level. MWD supplies about half the water needs for Southern California.

As evidenced this week in Oceanside, changing political landscapes will also enter into the blender of water rate discussions.

Perhaps water will need to take pages from the playbooks of other utilities. Cost cutting is a major focus of energy as are the advantages of a Smart Grid and putting the responsibility of energy management in the hands of consumers. But will water agencies be able to cut costs fast enough to avoid the major rate hike?

One more item to add into the discussion - the long-standing perception among individuals that water is different from other utilities. One needs water to live.

Stay tuned. Stock the fridge and find a comfy chair. This show will be a good one. Watch this blog for more on this topic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Firing off a volley?

Missile mystery, Part Two. Is our government hiding something or what?

Where are the hard questions from the news orgs?

OK, since my previous post, a few more news orgs and bloggers are picking up the story. But, so far, my disappointment in the news continues. Where is the good journalism? Where are the hard questions?

Here are the questions and pursuits I'd be taking.

Pentagon says "they don't know" whose missile it is. Well, then, did our detection systems catch this launch? Did our jets scramble? Did NORAD pick this up on their radar last night? They can spot a launch anywhere in the world.

If our jets didn't scramble and the alarms didn't go off, then what does that mean? Either it tells me that the military really does know, this missile launch never happened (KCBS? Any explanation?) or some other explanation. I'd hate to think this launch was not detected, because that means my fears from the Cold War days are finally realized - anyone can launch a missile off our coast and take us out before we can say "Hunt for Red October."

Look at the carefully worded statements from NORAD. Not a complete denial.

What about Congress? Has anyone checked with our reps with oversight in defense?

Again, where is the aggressive news reporting to help us understand what the heck is going on?

News when you beg for it

Update (9:56 a.m.) The LA Times updated its story. And the "reporting" only gets worse.
As a former journalist and newspaper editor, I long for the good ol' days. You know, when newspapers really dug into a story. When news organizations reported on stories that people "should" know about, and not the stuff that tickles their fancy.

As circulation declines continue and the corresponding rise of "fluff" appears on local TV news stations, as viewership on the major TV news stations decline, as news magazines grow thinner or simply give up and become an online-only "publications," one has to wonder about the future of news gathering and reporting. And our sensibilities.

As much as I become encouraged that good reporting is not dead - as evidenced by this year's aggressive and solid reporting by the Los Angeles Times in uncovering financial corruption in Bell and other local cities - I come across situations like a mystery missile launch. And, I get depressed all over again.

My journalist "antenna" (you really never lose the instincts) is buzzing with this. So is my disgust.

Last night as the sun was setting (Nov. 8), the KCBS (Los Angeles) television news helicopter records a missile launch off the coast of Southern California. We're used to a few of these a year because of the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, where sometimes secret military satellites rise above the earth and give us interesting looking contrails. But this missile wasn't coming from Vandenberg. As best anyone can tell, it came out of the ocean south of Vandenberg.

So far this morning, this story is still a minor one in the news cycles. MSNBC is almost laughing it off. From what I can gather (via Google) so far, only an enterprising TV reporter at the CBS affiliate in San Diego has dug a bit to give the curious a hint of what happened. SAN DIEGO! The Los Angeles Times offered only a brief this morning. As of 8 a.m. (PST), there were only 25 stories in a Google search. The story wasn't even on the web site of the TV station that "broke" the story..until just a few minutes ago.

Am I just an aging, former newspaper reporter longing for the old days, or is this lack of reporting an indication of all that ails news today?

The KFMB reporting opens up the door to the bigger story. The President is in Asia. Perhaps the U.S. fired a test ICBM from a submarine just to demonstrate we have a presence in the Pacific? As a visible show of strength to the countries the President is visiting, or near?

On the one hand, it's "comforting" to know we still have a pretty good missile system. But, when was the last time one our submarines "exposed" itself with a test launch? Isn't the whole idea of our "triad" missile system (land, air, sea) to be a bit stealthy in the ocean? One has to assume that the U.S. alerted a few other countries that we were only doing a "test" because an ICBM launch like this would certainly get a few of them on alert.

You can see where my line of questioning would go...if I still had my press pass and a desk in a newsroom.

Just because the rest of Southern California did not get alarmed by this missile launch (the LA Times brief used the word "gorgeous" ! and we were more intrigued by a truck crash that closed a freeway!), shouldn't mean this is a story that gets easily passed over with a "hmmm..that-was-strange" level of reporting.

I go back to this: When was the last time the U.S. fired an ICBM? From a sub? Off the coast of a major U.S. city? While the president was out of the country?

We get better reporting with Hezbollah aimlessly fires missiles into Israel. Here in the U.S., the top five stories this morning included how well Conan did on his opening night return to TV. (The local CBS TV "news" lineup also included another "story" promoting Hawaii Five-O).

So, is this lackluster reporting a symptom, an indicator? In the old days, when news departments felt responsible to give the public the news it "deserves" to know about, the public responded. As much as the public expressed negative sentiment toward the "all you write about is negative news" argument, journalists went to sleep knowing they fulfilled their responsibilities.

Now, when news decisions are based on what "we think" the public wants to know (i.e. which movie won at the box office, which celebrity was arrested), it strikes me as feeding into an overall decline that further contributes to the death of good journalism. And a public without all the news they "should" know.