Monday, November 21, 2011

Power of PR

The city of Long Beach recently announced a major milestone in one of its many water conservation efforts: removing turf from 500 residential landscapes.

The turf-replacement effort, which first received high visibility in Las Vegas a few years earlier, is one of many to make homes and business more efficient with water.

The story sort of buried the lead - that drought resistant landscapes use up to six times less water. This is a huge number, given that half or more of the water delivered to Southern California homes today is used for landscapes. Most earlier estimates said water-saving gardens and landscapes could mean a 30 percent reduction in water use. (Help me out here - "six times" vs. "30 percent"... different levels of savings, right?)

These sort of numbers, if you begin to add them up for every household in Southern California, could mean a much more reliable water future. I'm surprised someone has not jumped all over this.

Water agencies in California are busy implementing a range of water-efficiency efforts to get residents and businesses to use less. They must meet a 2020 deadline to reduce per-capita water use by 20 percent.

While rebate programs like turf replacement are helping to achieve improved water efficiencies, cities and water districts also are implementing at rapid pace a "tiered rate" structure. These rate structures are designed to make it costly for people when they waste water. It's the same structure that electric utilities began using after that last big energy scare in CA.

While some customers will grumble and many will contend that they are using water wisely, a price structure combined with an allocation formula quickly creates "opportunities" for the average homeowner to realize that, yes, they can indeed save more water.

Most water agencies have figured out that getting people to first save water now - through a more "gentle" approach of rebates and tiered rate structures - will be the more friendly approach with the easier consumer acceptance.

But, alas, nothing is ever easy with water.

While water agencies are getting people to save, they also are seeing declines in revenues from water sales. Yet, agencies have fixed expenses, such as maintaining their vast infrastructure of pipes, paying for water treatment chemicals, meeting salaries, and other costs that can't be eliminated or reduced without jeopardizing the system.

So, they must raise rates. So often, water agencies will thank their customers for saving water, then are forced to turn around and say "Now, we must charge you more for this service." Not exactly the kind of reward a typical customer was looking for.

Many water agencies that implement tiered rates are trying their best to keep the bill for its average, water-efficient customer at the same level. These agencies are counting on a percentage of their customers still wasting water and, thus, paying huge rates for water above their monthly allocations.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

More "news site" troubles

Update Nov. 12: Central Basin has instructed its communications consultant to stop using a website where their stories were appearing under apparently fake bylines. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the water district believed the reporters were real and only became aware recently that the authors may be fictional.

In a statement issued Nov. 9, Central Basin said, among other things:
"Central Basin was not aware of issues related to the backgrounds
of the individuals whose names appeared alongside the stories and had no knowledge of their
biographies until it was brought to our attention, at which point the News Hawks website lost its
Google Certification and Central Basin’s vendor discontinued using the website.

Credit the LA Times for not giving up on a story.

As much as I hate to see a water agency that does great work remain in the newspaper's cross hairs, and as much as I hate to see someone in public relations getting slammed in print....the public relations profession needs to take notice and learn from this one.

And, the water district may want to ask for help from PRSA.

The latest Times story about the Central Basin water district of Southern California is an update to their previous article about the water district's effort to secure positive coverage. The water district has been in bitter battles with another water district, which also is using deception on the web in attacking Central Basin.

As this blog wrote when the original story first broke, paying for positive coverage is full of danger.

The key issue remains disclosure...even more so with the latest Times article.

The latest Times story raises significant questions about the authors of "news" articles that appeared on a "news" website (that was subsequently removed by Google in its news streams).

These reporters may be phony.

The appearance from the story is that the public relations consultant hired by the district used various fake names, bios and photos for articles that he wrote for this "news" website on behalf of his client.

This certainly raises more damaging questions about the water district's effort to counter attacks by using some of the same misleading efforts they revile. Knowing the Times was about to do another article, the water district issued a statement about four days before the article was published. The water district challenged the Times to "see how" their response would be used in the article.

The problem with the statement is that it deals with the underlying issue of the battle between the two water districts, but fails to address the bigger, more damaging issue of credibility and disclosure.

While Central Basin may feel it has won some arguments with the Times about who exactly paid for what and how the website where positive news stories appeared was created, the latest story continues to raise damaging questions for the district.

Perhaps the best next step for Central Basin is to issue a statement that it has further reviewed its contract for public outreach services and conducted its own investigation to either (a) conclude its consultant has performed to the highest ethical standards or (b) it is ending its contract because the opposite was true.

Then the next step would be for Central Basin to develop and adopt a policy for public communications and code of conduct.

PRSA, Los Angeles would be glad to help. PRSA has done it before for other public agencies, including FEMA.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's the water games begin

While the rest of the country will have its political antenna aimed at the White House in 2012, California will - or should - hear a lot of rhetoric about water.

As LA Times columnist George Skelton writes, the state Legislature has a big mess on its hands with a ballot-ready $11 billion water bond that probably will fail in a year if left as-is.

Behind the scenes, all the usual groups are lining up for a post-holiday free-for-all. Everyone knows the bond must be trimmed and it will be up to the Legislature and Gov. Brown to re-craft this measure by next May or June to make the ballot in time.

Let the games begin.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mini crime spree - where is the reporting?

(A bit of a deviation from normal PR topics)

It's Wednesday and in just three days, Southern California already has seen a month's worth of sensational stories of murder and mayhem.

But does anyone care?

Not that I need more or have some dark desire for grisly stuff, but as a former crimes reporter, I'm dismayed by the lack of solid crime journalism. This would be the everyday, basic police-beat reporting that is designed to give the public a sense of the unusual. This is the kind of news that should be important to us because we should treat life with greater respect. Especially when innocent people are gunned down in our streets.

Yet, through lazy journalism, budget cuts and misdirected priorities, we're seeing the kind of news that should shock us - crime - being supplanted by another kind of sensational news - celebrities.

I partly blame careless journalism for this devolution of sensitivities. Case in point:

A "good Samaritan" was shot dead on Halloween in Santa Clarita trying to intervene in a midday robbery in a parking lot. Basic police reporting calls for going to the scene, tracking down family and acquaintances, getting cops to talk on background (which can be done by veteran copy reporters who had developed a relationship with the cops), and more. Reporters need to describe the scene so we get a clear picture of the horror that unfolded. Why do this? Because a two-paragraph release from authorities is very skimpy on details. The public deserves to know the details because murders are supposed to be unusual and shocking.

But was any of this kind of reporting done? The majority of news organizations failed. One exception was the Daily News (my former paper), but this good reporting is only available in the print edition. Sadly, most people only get their stories online via blog links, searches.

Meanwhile, top stories on local TV are about, what else, celebrity divorces, celebrity probation violations, promos for network shows...