A PR Firm Needs Crisis Communications

Frequently, PR agencies are called upon to use their experience, judgement, skills and reputation to manage bad press.  It’s rare that an agency has to do this for a $200,000+ PR campaign it designed.  But that’s exactly what a local San Diego PR agency faces – cleanup in aisle five – and they’re praying they get their money’s worth out of themselves!

To be accurate, the agency is a well-respected, award-winning, agency. The client is the “San Diego SAFE Motorist Aid Program” known as SAFE San Diego. It’s funded via a $1 annual fee on DMV registrations to increase driver safety.  Back in the day, it put up and maintained all those call boxes you see along the freeway for motorists whose cars broke down.  Then the cell phone was invented.

The PR contract called for a website.  But Googleing  “SAFE San Diego,” a completely different website popped up at the top.  This other agency is “designed to provide community members with information and issues related to sex offenders in San Diego County.”  A glance of their website tells me this organizations is definitely worth a buck a year to combat sexual assault.  And, in fact, San Diego SAFE Task Force website (www.sdsafe.org) is funded by taxpayers through the office of the California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris – but I digress.  No controversy here (yet excellent SEO work).

The “San Diego SAFE Motorist Aid Program” (www.sdcallbox.org) is run by Executive Director Eddie Castoria at the pleasure of a board of local elected officials.  First, I’m not going out on a limb by assuming that the PR contract doesn’t provide for media training.  If there was, the government could sue the agency for malpractice just for letting Eddie come up with this gem:

“It’s Marketing 101: If you want people to learn about your service, or product or whatever, you have to let them know about it.”

My point, exactly.  They have to know about it.  Here’s where it gets ugly.

Even before the latest news story, two SAFE San Diego board members (elected officials) had called for the agency to be defunded.  The San Diego Union-Tribune already did a “Watchdog” story detailing how, “use of roadside boxes dropped from 170,511 calls in 1990 to 11,625 in 2010. During the same time tax revenue has grown to $2.6 million annually from $1.9 million, spawning $12.8 million in reserves.”  Tip: Elected officials don’t like getting cloths-lined by ANY problems particular-lily ones they didn’t cause.  Within this context, the article reveals that the PR agency was paid $214,000 “to do PR”.  The story headline is:

“Call box agency giving away gas cards”

What?  Are they made of money?

Predictably, most of the nearly two dozen comments under the article are negative.  Many call for the agency to be dissolved, for the executive director to be fire and for the $12.8 million surplus be returned to the taxpayers.  This is where a chief executive holds all calls and takes out the “Modern Publicity Crisis Communications Response Handbook” for next steps.

  • Step one: hold all calls.
  • Step two: refer to your “Modern Publicity Crisis Communications Response Handbook” for next steps.
  • Step three: answer the following question:
  •              Is anyone’s life in imminent danger?  If Yes, call 911 immediately.  If no:
  •              Is anyone in danger or is a crime being committed?  If no:
  •              Call Paul 24/7 – (619) 994-7696 except for roadside assistance!

But if you’re a driver with a highway driving crisis, you likely have a cell phone and don’t need a roadside call boxes. San Diego SAFE saw this and modernized by providing a “511” service for quick, convenient roadside assistance.  If you think about it, it is a good alternative especially if it keeps folks from dialing “911” or “411” when stranded and I bet it wouldn’t even cost $2.6 million a year to implement.

The publicity challenge is simply to let folks know about 511.  Instead, the PR agency chose to run a gas card contest using radio ads (here’s where it goes off the rails) to drive people to the website.

Q: who needs to go to a website to find out that dialing 511 gets you roadside assistance?  A website for five words?  All they need is… to be told “dial 511 for roadside assistance.”  That’s it.  In publicity, the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line.  So, no gas cards.  No contest. No website. $50 gas cards used as “bait” to increase website traffic for a public agency already under fire for having a huge funding surplus in the middle of a recession is… an “autogol.”

It may seem counter-intuitive for a group like Modern Publicity, but I would go “old school” to promote 511.  Launch the campaign by holding a press conference unveiling of a huge yellow  and black 511 billboard (see below – can grab attention) with a pithy catchphrase “Dial 511 for Roadside Assistance.”  Elected officials, civic leaders and reporters from all over town will be there. Then, use the news video for message repetition using social media networking.  Meanwhile, rev-up a news talk radio outreach to talk with drivers who are…. driving. Give them the 411 on the 511. Go to the drivers and say, “Don’t be dumb.  Dial 511 for roadside assistance.”

I am certain COSTO and busy gas stations would let the agency put up a card table and pay college students to hand out 511 schwag like key rings and rape whistles (or stickers and air fresheners like one board member, newly elected San Diego City Councilmember Lori Zapf, suggested).  Okay – you want “fancy” and “sophisticated”?  Produce a cute YouTube video of kids learning/repeating to us (dense) adults the difference between 911, 411 and 511.  Put a cute dog or cat in it, give it a catchy song and I bet you dimes to nickles it goes viral.  For icing on the cake, write an Op-Ed and get it published in the newspapers. That’s what you pay a PR agency to do.  Get in the news, for cryen’ out loud!  Websites, smedgesites!  Keep it simple.
Don’t misunderestimate Modern Publicity – we’re all about leveraging technology.  Technology isn’t where we start.  We start with the client, their message, their target audience and measurable, common-sense goals.  In this case, a website is not even close to the most effective tool to increase awareness for drivers.  Word of mouth is.  Old school still works.
To their credit, the agency claims that “in the four weeks since the contest began the website has averaged nearly 1,100 visitors per week, 11 pages viewed per visit and more than four minutes spent surfing.”  Thank goodness for Google Analytics.  But, can can Mr. Google tell us how many more people know about 511?  Or will use it?  Better yet, if it will decrease all-important 911 calls for non-emergency roadside assistance?  Or (I can’t believe I’m writing this) how it will decrease the cost of San Diego SAFE Motorist Aid?

What’s the measurement – the deliverable – we’re after?  No, not web hits.  We want to know: has awareness increased?  How do we measure it?

Both are easily done through advertising and publicity, polling and surveys.  It’s not rocket surgery or brain science.  It’s simple communications.  The sooner folks who hire PR agencies ask for common-sense deliverables that are both measurable, useful and use sound logic, the fewer agencies who will be running around town cleaning up their own mess in aisle five.

NOTE: Since this blog was written, the San Diego Union-Tribune has published an opinion calling for elected officials to “phase SAFE out of existence.”

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