Monday, January 31, 2011

When all else fails, blame PR

Most PR professionals today realize we live in an era of transparency.

We also know we have a job to do. We need to make sure our client's side is being heard. We are hired to conduct campaigns. The good firms know our job is best done with facts, not spin.

I've found the most effective firms at getting their point across are ones who use facts, and use them well.

Those on the losing end of a campaign will generally start blaming everyone except themselves.

Case in point is the continuing skirmish we call California Water.

Sure, this is a highly charged issue and a lot of "political muscle" is used. Deals are made. Issues are resolved in court. Companies, water agencies and others hire public relations companies to help them, just as they hire attorneys or accountants. The task for a PR agency could be simple, like creating fact sheets, or complex, like creating and implementing strategies for a long-term campaign involving elected officials, top government officials and more.

But when it comes to taking your case to the public, the good PR and public affairs firms rely on facts. And the really good ones don't attempt to cover up the blemishes. The good ones anticipate the arguments from the "other side" and will respond with ... facts (not spin).

So, what happens when the "other side" appears to be losing the argument? They blame "high priced..PR" firms conducting "sleazy propaganda campaigns" and make other accusations that lack fact or attempt to elicit some kind of emotional response with outdated descriptions.

When you hear these sorts of phrases, beware. It's actually...spin.

Such is the case today with an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by a fisherman's trade association.

For example, this column argues things "that you won't hear" from a campaign being waged by a well-know PR firm. The problem is: Most of the apparently "ignored" or "buried" facts are out there...and have been for quite some time.

For example, state water associations and others readily discuss how water is divided in California with up to 80 percent of the state's supplies used by agriculture. What the fisherman's author fails to mention is the percentage of state water supplies set aside for environmental needs, such as protecting the very fish he wants to catch.

I'll grant you that one side of this water battle is gearing up for a skirmish, and is or will soon go on a campaign. That's what we do, to get a win on our side. And in California Water, not everyone wins. But a good PR agency knows you can't fool anyone with spin or hiding the facts. The risk in going down that path is great and creates enormous risks at damaging the credibility your side needs to be effective.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Media dust

What a month for my former employer - the Daily News.

And what an interesting look at how the quest for profit can hurt the assets that truly will bring you a return.

First, former managing editor Doug Dowie (and one-time public relations force in LA) lost an appeal in a criminal case for defrauding taxpayers and is set to begin a 3.5-year prison sentence in February.

A few weeks later, Dean Singleton stepped down as CEO of MediaNews Group, the parent company of the Daily News and a host of other papers in California and across the country. Singleton was a founder of the fourth largest newspaper holding company in the U.S.

Both events could draw some observations about changes in the world where we PR types maneuver, and possibly how leaders can lose sight of the things that make companies strong.

First, Doug. He was my boss at the Daily News. Later, he was someone I encountered in PR circles. Actually, we usually found ourselves on opposite sides in the tightly-wound world of public affairs and Los Angeles government.

Dowie was among the few dozen of us who made a transition from newspapers to public relations in Southern California. Many of us did so because of limited newspaper career options (see below) and because PR paid better. OK, there. I said it.

The connections and contacts we nurtured as journalists were suddenly valuable to an agency. This continues today, especially because of the erosion of traditional newspapers and the growth of the public relations profession. It's a point worth remembering: Value. Human value.

Sadly, as well documented in his trial, Dowie stepped way out of bounds in running the Los Angeles office of a well known PR firm. His critics will quickly assume that as the head of the Los Angeles office of a major PR firm, Dowie was pressured to show profits. That pressure, they assume, led him down a dangerous and costly path. The PR firm has never fully recovered its LA standing.

And there was greater damage. In Dowie's wake was a disaster for many PR agencies in Los Angeles. The city immediately cut off all PR contracts - a harsh move considering that scandals have occurred with other consultants (engineers, etc.), but the city never imposed a total blackout on those industries. But, here we were again, defending what we do for a living.

I had the joyous task, as president of the Public Relations Society of America's Los Angeles chapter, of trying to help PR recover its standing - both with the city and with our overall image in a major metropolitan area. Then and now, PR remains an easy target. ("Why can't city staff handle these duties?" "Why does government need PR?"). Of course, you can't remind the elected officials who are taking shots at you that they have relied on the same PR and public affairs leaders to boost their political capitol, win critical initiatives, negotiate consensus, and communicate with their constituencies. You can't convince journalists why public agencies, and private corporations, need strategists to protect reputations or get information published through the very medium that delights in taking shots.

Today, the impact of Dowie's very public case on local PR and public affairs seems to have faded. Agencies rightfully have earned government contracts to manage the serious business of communicating important initiatives and projects, securing consensus, and more. Questions about why "outside" assistance is needed versus what can be accomplished by in-house staff are less frequent. (Asking this is the same as saying in-house city engineers with no background in building a steel bridge are the better choice over an outside engineering firm that has designed dozens of bridges. They both have basic engineering skills, but wouldn't you rather look for the specialist, the one with experience in the project you're about to do?)

Perhaps the lessons for PR managers in the Dowie case is to place the appropriate value on your work and to go after the accounts that will bring you an appropriate return. Governments are not cash cows, certainly not today. But if your work is valuable, and your team is valuable, then make sure everyone knows that price ahead of time.

Singleton also was not a revered subject within his industry, at least not by the working journalists who saw this CEO more concerned with profits than quality journalism. This was his mantra long before anyone could envision the current financial demise of newspapers. Journalists dreaded the news that their paper was being acquired by Singleton because cuts were coming. Journalists want an owner whose priority is producing good journalism. It's a great motivator. It's why journalists will accept low pay.

So, after years of being concerned with bottom lines, rather than investing in human capital, MediaNews is hurting. The same could be said for the demise of Circuit City. Although reports will point to many reasons for this retailer's implosion, the lack of dedication to its staff was very apparent.

The lesson? At the end of the day, it all comes down to people. Great companies value employees, and realize their success is built around what their employees produce. It seems so easy, right?

Friday, January 28, 2011

A tragedy I'll never forget

Twenty five years ago, I was a young reporter at the Battle Creek Enquirer in Michigan.

As an afternoon paper, we had our stories written and edited by morning so the presses could begin to roll and deliver copies in newsstands by the start of the lunch hour. It was a different era of news back then. There were morning papers and afternoon ones. I never inquired why Battle Creek chose to be a "p.m." paper, but it worked for our readers.

With the stress of deadline over, I got up from my desk and began walking over to the "news desk" side of our newsroom. These were the folks who edited our stories, put headlines on them and designed the pages (we called it "laying out" the pages).

I was a news junkie. I would use this time to glance over the shoulder of our "wire" editor, who would check the computer a few times to see if there was any late-breaking news that needed to be included in the "home" edition. The "home" would be printed when the presses stopped and changed out the rolls of paper. The wire editor was one of the few with the privilege to view stories coming out over the "wire." This was long before Google would give everyone this kind of access. By reading over the wire editor's shoulder, I was able to see the latest stories popping up around the country and the world.

In reality, we had about two hours between the downtown edition and the home edition printing cycles. So, if a big story broke, either locally or somewhere else, we had a chance to get the "latest" story to our loyal subscribers by the time they got home. Yeah, kids got out of school, jumped on their bikes and delivered the Enquirer way before dinner.

As I walked by the wire editor, a "holy s..t" muttered from his mouth. On his screen was a notice from the Associated Press.

"Flash: The Shuttle Challenger has exploded on takeoff."

Back then, a "Flash" was the most serious, most instant way the Associated Press could alert news organizations around the world that a major story just happened. It took on so much more importance today than the typical "breaking news" we see on TV today. Back then, "Flash" outranked "Bulletin" for urgency.

It took us a couple of seconds to comprehend. I immediately ran into the editor's office and said we needed to stop the presses NOW. Yeah, I got to say that famous line. It took Dave Smith a couple of seconds to comprehend what I was telling him.

He got on the phone to the press room, then the publisher and the began barking out orders. He and the news editor ran toward the press room to stop the presses. Some papers were already printed and being loaded into delivery trucks. We stopped those trucks, but one had already left. However, the circulation folks managed to catch up with the driver and caught him as he was loading the first paper into the news rack. There was no way an Enquirer was going to be sold without this story in it.

As a journalist, certain instincts and training kick in. You must put aside your emotions and focus on your job. This appearance of a cold heart usually draws criticism and hatred from people who can't figure out why we are asking questions during a difficult time. The questions may seem heartless, but we have to gather information - even in the worst of moments.

I felt a certain emptiness in my gut - this was going to be a very, very difficult next several hours, even days.

When a space mission like this - with all the built-up emotions of putting our first teacher into space - goes terribly wrong, a journalist realizes not only is this big news, but it needs to be "covered." You'll see what I mean, in a moment.

This mission - unlike most other Shuttle missions before it - was special to, well, pehaps every American. There were thousands of teachers across the country who applied for the spot eventually won by Christa McAuliffe. Christa's journey to the moment she was seen smiling and waving to the crowd as she boarded was documented in incredible detail. Millions of students followed her training, turned in papers about space travel and possibly dreamed about being in space one day.

The Space Shuttle program, when launched in the early 1980s, did capture our attention and raised our spirits. But like the other space programs before it, the country began losing interest in Shuttles a few years after the first launch.

With "STS-51-L" set to launch on January 28, 1986, NASA had both re-captured the country's interest in why we go to space, and began giving us the idea that astronauts could be any of us.

As David, my editor, returned from the pressroom, our tiny little newsroom sprung into action. Some were still in shock. Half-eaten lunches on our desks were being tossed aside for notepads and phone calls. The first few paragraphs of the story pushed their way out onto the wires. The TVs came one. It became incredibly clear a major disaster just hit the nation.

Our instincts told us we needed to cover this story - fast.

First, we quickly needed a new downtown edition with just the headline on top and the first 6 or 8 paragraphs - and papers needed to hit newsstands before lunch was over. As the news desk was redoing the front page that would be soon burned into new press plates, our newsroom began figuring out assignments and how we would try to "cover" this story.

We had two hours.

Dave and the other senior editors made a great decision. We would create an "EXTRA" with four pages that would be "wrapped" around the papers we had first printed. The four pages would be filled with mostly stories our staff would write, mixed in with the stories we could get from the "wires."

Trace Christenson (my friend who still works there) remembered a letter to the editor from a former Battle Creek resident about how he enjoyed his new home in Florida because he could watch the Shuttle launches. Trace tracked him down and got a "Battle Creek" resident's first-hand view of the disaster.

Two local teachers applied and one was in the final rounds to be the first teacher in space. Local classrooms were watching the launch. Our education writer, Nancy Kaley, was able to track down both teachers. We tracked down professors at nearby universities who were space exploration and rocket experts. How could something like this happen? Their theories proved to be mostly accurate. Our photographers caught people glued to TVs in storefronts. There were many other stories we wrote.

As a "newsman," this was our finest moment. We published stories in two hours that took some news organizations two days to produce. We published in-depth and meaningful articles. We gave our readers about as complete a package as they could get that day.

I still have a copy of the front page of the "Extra" next to my desk. I'll dig out the complete section soon.

And, then, after reading the stories....I'll probably cry. I'll cry for Christa and her six crew mates. For the thousands who built and got the Challenger ready to fly. For the young, innocent dreams instantly shattered. For a nation whose heart never completely healed from this cold day that took a terrible turn just one minute and 13 seconds after liftoff.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Carrying a tough message

What happens when you, the messenger, are tasked with delivering a message that no one can grasp? It's a message that instantly creates doubt and suspicion.

Stick to your message, right?

Kudos to scientists and others who kept insisting that California is not out of a drought, not just yet.

When the "left coast" was battered by storms in October, November and December and the snowpack - California's natural water reservoir - was 200 percent of normal, everyone figured the drought was over. Man-made reservoirs were filling, some were overflowing.

With these visual images, it was hard to tell the public that...well...we're not out of the woods, yet.

If you have lived in California for a few decades, you know the weather can change. As a skier, I have experienced many seasons when the skiing was great in December and..then...bam, it was lousy for the rest of winter. Sigh. I'm watching the snow slowly recede from the San Gabriel Mountains.

State water officials are cautious ones. And, in a message they repeat often, one period of heavy rain does not mean an end to the drought.

So, as state officials prepare to sample our snowpack Friday, their cautionary tale about a "change in the weather" could mean we still have limited water supplies may just prove to be true.

When "critics" clamored for a declaration that California's drought was over, state officials and scientists instead were bold - they stuck to the message.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reputation buster

Are there any trust surveys for water agencies?

Water and California have lived a contentious live for more than 100 years. As "documented" in the film Chinatown, those pesky Southern California businessmen "stole" water from the landowners of the eastern Sierra Nevada to help turn Los Angeles into a global economic engine.

Perhaps aided by the film, the ill feelings remain around to this day. Talk about a bad taste lasting in your mouth for a while.

Whether you're a water agency or a major corporation, trust is critical. (Note: the annual "Edelman Trust Barometer" is out today).

For the past decade, at least, water agencies in California and across the country have been studying ways to build reputation. Driving this has been the increased use of bottled water ("What, you don't trust tap water?") and price increases (witness the public reaction to the latest price hike proposal in the Sacramento area). I was part of an informal gathering of agencies trying to figure out a campaign to build trust in water agencies. The Water Research Foundation has commissioned reports about improving public trust.

Sadly, most water agencies spend more time worrying about image, or trying to explain the complexities of what they do, rather than take bold steps to build trust.

It's a challenge. One factor influencing the angst over public trust of water agencies is purely political. A handful of directors elected to water boards view their positions as stepping stones to higher office. If they can't build voter support at the water board agency level, then....

Also, water agencies sometimes are on "the other side" of environmental questions. A water project sometimes will create significant environmental issues, which then pits a water agency against a well-run environmental group. They should be on the same side.

Like many corporations, water agencies have the daily tasks to be concerned with and rarely afford enough time to look at the big, longer-range picture. And, then, they are puzzled why a rate hike is shot down by the public.

Water agencies also are the "most local" utility around. The headquarters for gas and electric utilities may not even be in the same state and the regulatory bodies that decide rate increases are hundreds of miles away.

What's the answer, or...answers?

Somewhere along this liquid history, water agencies lost a great reputation/brand - that of being an agency created to protect the public health. What better image could water agencies enjoy and maintain? Is it too late to try to recapture and promote this reputation?

With water price hikes in the short-term future for water agencies - and these hikes sometimes in the 40-50 percent range! - strategies to build trust and improve reputation are needed now more than ever.

Even with a well planned reputation strategy, customers may still grumble about rate hikes, but at least they will understand why and begin to trust their local water agency with "doing the right thing."

Right now, water agencies are too easy a target for voter/customer anger.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Calculating the total green picture

The Los Angeles Times today hit upon the ongoing dilemma of companies trying to be green.

Public relations pros engaged in this arena will tell you many stories about restraining their clients from boasting their "greeness." Why? Because someone will challenge it, have some proof it's not as "green" as proclaimed and, poof, opportunity lost, reputation tarnished, blah, blah, blah.

For those of us advising clients about how to communicate their advances in sustainability, we know all too well about the bar being raised.

For instance, the Times' story zeros in on the issue of a "total carbon footprint." A few months ago, this was not on the radar.

Many clients are proud of their LEED-certified building(s). By themselves, these buildings are great testaments to the ingenuity, commitment and foresight that a small investment can make to reduce pollution, save our resources and try to slow down that pesky climate change thing. There are plenty of good reasons to build to LEED standards.

Clients will proudly point to the LEED plaque on the wall. They will notice this on their materials they give to customers. They will hold press conferences after completion.

But wait. Shouldn't you also look at the "rest of the story"?? Did you know there is more to this story?

The question now before developers and owners of green buildings is: How much carbon are you using "outside" of the building? This includes the energy your employees expend to get to work, the travel you take, etc. (Some of this is the foundation of CA greenhouse gas emission laws).

All this points to the problem of a "rising bar." The feds and many state governments continue to impose new rules. Environmental groups and other NGOs are asking more in-depth questions and changing how they "rate" products and companies. Impacts are being recalculated every day.

For PR pros, there are a few simple steps to consider when dealing with the "rising bar" of green standards.

Survey the landscape. A sustainability program you communicated six months ago will not enjoy the same "mood" or conditions today. The most current research is needed, regardless of whether you are launching a product or an initiative. Companies that are providing these kind of reports include the Shelton Group (with its "EcoPlus" report) and I also monitor GreenTechMedia for trends and issues.

Focus on "first audience first." Before proclaiming to the world a new green product, a new green-related initiative or strategic direction, give the loyal audience the first look. It's better to have knowledgeable ambassadors support your announcement or direction, especially in an ever-evolving platform such as "green" news. And, they serve as a test audience. OK, call it a focus group, but it's the much safer route. If it flies with the inner circle, move to step 3.

Secure the NGOs. As aptly explained by established consulting firms, such as the Environmental Impact Initiative, companies are learning that you need a credible partner. The partner can advise you on, say, where to locate that new LEED building so you are not ending up causing more greenhouse gas emissions by forcing employees to drive further to work.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A must event in January

The Public Relations Society of America, Los Angeles chapter, holds its annual "State of the Industry" session on January 26. Sign up here.

This event usually draws a large crowd because we either get to see some of Los Angeles' top PR executives offer some unvarnished views about where our profession is going to do well in the coming months, or where it will fail - or there is a perspective or prediction that came out of left field.

Usually, we get both.

It's always good to read the trades for these "trend" stories, but I always get some additional insights in this LA panel because of the caliber of the panelists and because we get to ask them pointed questions.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Timely response?

If past foibles did not teach the average CEO, politician, public figure, etc. on how and when to respond to a crisis, what will?

Too numerous are the case studies of late. Dominos. Toyota. BP. Jet Blue. Tiger Woods. All examples of why you need a crisis plan, or at least the framework of how to respond when s*** happens. Read: get a response out fast.

So, why did Sarah Palin wait five days to post a video response to the attacks on her that rose from the Tucson shooting? More importantly: Why did she post the response ON THE SAME DAY when President Obama was going to give a pivotal, emotionally laden address to the nation at the memorial ceremony in Tucson?

Who is advising her? Who is writing her stuff?

The contrast is captured perfectly in many stories, most notably today's New York Times piece by Michael Shear.

Besides being prepared to respond quickly, the other major lesson learned here is not new, either. Experienced crisis communications counselors will frequently advise to "take the high road" and avoid "being negative" in a response. Sadly, Palin attacked her critics. Rather than talk about the issues she felt were important, she went on the defensive.

Big mistake. You never win being defensive. The public will remember how you responded. They may not remember every word, but they will remember your overall tone.

It wasn't as if no one saw the tone of Obama's speech coming. The calls for being civil in discourse were everywhere.

Finally, I'm curious to know my colleagues' thoughts about format? A video posted on her Facebook page? Did she come off, with that direct look at the camera, a little cold and a little flat in delivery? Contrast this with how Dominos CEO did his response. More relaxed worked for the pizza king. Stiff for the Alaska queen didn't.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Where the wild things roam

Mysteries make for great novels. They also make for great conspiracy theories.

For PR, the dead birds in the South and a Navy captain's inappropriate video provide some great reminders. Like, how a story can get wildly out of control. Like, why PR plays such an important role in organizing and communicating meaningful information during the uncontrolled moments.

In short: damage control.

Like, immediately knowing the news media's "mindset." In many cases these days: The news media is quick to judge, quick to apply highly charged adjectives and quickly reach their own assumptions.

In short: Living in the world of open speculation. (And occasionally cast as a "news" story).

If left to our own devices, a certain percentage of us will go wild with a story like birds falling out of the sky. I know I did, very briefly, with the "mystery missile" launch in Southern California a few months ago. I was convinced it was a missile, but after the evidence came in, I agreed with the experts that it was an airplane's contrail.

If all we do is listen to broadcast news, a certain percentage of us will be led to a conclusion.

Ah, yes, evidence. It takes too long for the evidence to come in. Only lawyers will be restrained at the outset. They are trained to wait for the evidence. Trial lawyers, prosecutors and detectives can provide plenty of stories about how first appearances can generally be wrong.

The rest of us? We're ready to issue verdicts instantly. Human nature, at least in how we've become conditioned (see blow), is to seek conclusions more quickly. Or provide judgment and our own opinions. Have you read the number of reader comments to stories?

Reason and understanding thrown out the window?

In today's instant information age - we demand immediate answers. If we want answers, we Google it and usually land on Wikipedia. Who is that actor I see on my favorite show? Go to How old is my favorite rock star? Did I just hear that my favorite celebrity couple just broke up? I betcha or has it.

Facebook enables us to link stories of our liking and share with hundreds of "friends."

Online information is only good for "established" or frivolous stories. It doesn't work for emerging news or stories with too many unanswered questions. Our current "demand-for-information-instantly" mentality doesn't know how to handle delay or lack of detail.

A PR professional's skills and ability are only becoming more important.

In the case of the Navy captain, he became the latest victim of a video that was easily accessible. When will everyone realize that today, with emails, videos (Dominoes Pizza), even voicemail (Tiger?) it's best to stay clear of recordable material?

But in the latest incident, it doesn't help when Katie Couric openly asks in the CBS Evening News broadcast (Under "Navy Lewd Videos") "Does Captain Honors hold any chance of preserving his career in the Navy at this point?" Talk radio was alive with this story (and the dead birds).

The news media has the right to ask questions and investigate, but open speculation and pronouncements (instantly calling it a "lewd" video) only fuels a public mindset ready to instantly judge.