The PR Agency of Satan

UPDATE: I picked up the title for this post while looking at a Twitter search result, not realizing that it was the title of Jacob Morgan’s post on the same subject… so in the interest of credit where credit is due I point you to his post on this subject.

This morning I opened up my email and there was a message to a list called “DigitalBrand” from a PR agency pitching a book. It was bulk email to a list of people, I have no idea how many but as the events unfolded in the morning I recognized many of the people on the list, mostly journalists, authors, public speakers, and other influential bloggers (note that I am in none of the above categories… so I was kind of honored to be included!). The list name was in the CC, meaning anyone who replied to the email ended up respamming the entire list, by the end of the day over 50 messages were traded, not a lot considering but I think that by late morning they had shut down the list server to control the traffic.

Lesson #1: Don’t use lists but if you must then think ahead and put the list in the bcc field. PR pitches should be personal in this day and age, spamming a list isn’t going to make you any friends.

Throughout the morning people, also on the list, were replying back questioning how they got on the list, demanding to be taken off, and sundry other harshly worded messages. I have no idea how I ended up on this mailing list, but a quick search revealed I had nothing from them previously (I only delete outright spam from my inbox, which explains why I have 50k messages in my gmail account.

Lesson #2: Don’t pitch or promote a service or product to an email list consisting of people who didn’t ask to be on the list. Pissing off the people you are trying to court is not smart.

Despite many pleas from people to take them off the list, demanding to know why they were on it, and expressing dismay that it was happening in the first place, no one from the offending agency stepped in to offer an explanation of what happened, why, and what they were doing to fix it. Later came torrent of emails from the list server with unsubscribe help ticket confirmations, it felt a virtual black hole sucking in everyone on the original list.

Lesson #3: Being engaged may seem so 2008 but it still matters. If you are pitching something about social media, make a blatant mistake, and then don’t step up to explain yourself, you have not only pissed off a lot of people but you throw away any sympathy and “don’t worry about it” sentiment that certainly exists. We have all made mistakes with email, and will certainly make mistakes in the future…

The final observation is that because their is no latency in communication today, individual acts like sending an mail to a list and setting off a cascading series of unfortunate events, can happen with blinding speed and far greater amplitude than anyone expects. By the afternoon the twitterverse was picking up on this incident and blog posts were appearing, none of it complimentary and certainly not beneficial to this firm’s clients.

People who communicate for a living and to groups not connected to their firm need to be very careful about these small acts that can quickly spiral out of control. I deliberately didn’t include the name of the firm, although no doubt you will quickly figure it out if you follow the links, because I don’t think they deserve to be burned in effigy… it was a mistake and I’m sure more than a few people had a very bad day today. Having said that, I can’t help but notice that this event underscores the idea that people who are used to being pitched for a living don’t want to be pitched like they used to. In this unfortunate incident are some real lessons to be learned about how PR firms deal with the people they want to court support from.

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The Just Say No Movement

Environmental groups long ago lost legitimacy with mainstream Californians for simply being the Party of No, as in no development of any kind, anywhere, under any circumstances. There’s only so many times that you can raise the same objections and not turn into the proverbial boy who cried wolf. The latest example of this is a proposed water desalination plant in Marin County, ground zero for liberal progressive environmental agendas, and by extension the 20 currently planned desalination projects in planning stages in California.

According to Helliker, the plant itself – planned to occupy a 7-acre swath near the Home Depot in San Rafael – will cost $3 million to $4 million each year to operate. Desalination eats up a lot of energy due to the high pressure needed to push seawater through extremely fine membranes that extract the salt.

[From Key Marin County hearing on desalination]

First a little background, desalination works by pumping large amounts of sea water through a series of membranes, a process called reverse osmosis, with the resulting product being high quality drinking water and a sea salt sludge that is simply pumped back out to where salt is already abundant, the ocean. The process is, by any standard, old technology that has been adopted in places where naturally occurring water is not in abundance, like the Middle East, and the increased cost, roughly 4-5x the cost of acquiring drinking water from a watershed or a groundwater system, is a necessary tradeoff. Tampa Bay, Florida has successfully operated a large scale desalination plant for years now.

In California these same environmental groups have waged a war against the citizenry by attacking water diverted for the agribusiness, California’s largest economic sector and significant supplier of food to the country as a whole and for export internationally, and for population centers, a war that has been joined by the Federal government in what amounts to a massive violation of states rights as bureaucrats in Washington are determining how the State of California uses California water resources.

Beyond simply a matter of building new dams, the state finds itself in a position of defending existing dams that environmental groups would prefer to see razed, which means no new supply is being added the state water system while the population continues to expand. Conservation alone simply cannot make up the difference, that old song has been pushed on Californians for 3 decades and the underlying water supply situation has not changed. Conservation is good, we practice it here at our house, but it’s not enough… it’s like suggesting that if everyone simply drove 55 mph we would not have an energy crisis.

California is for the most part arid. We don’t get any significant rain for almost half of the year, we cannot escape drought cycles, and water that is collected is under assault from a hot and dry climate that results in massive evaporation. We have plenty of water, it’s just in the snowpack and rivers which is the heart of environmental objections. They would prefer to see rivers flow to the ocean instead of providing water to the citizenry. It’s one of those let them eat cake moments in public policy…

Further complicating matters is that California’s population centers depend on water collected far way and delivered by pipeline. This water infrastructure has been neglected for decades as Sacramento politicians neglected their responsibility for good long term stewardship of public infrastructure in the name of short term measures more geared to satisfying powerful allies than serving the public good. As a result we have a water system that is greatly as risk of natural disaster which could result in outright cutoff of water service to major cities. You want to see a civil war then cutoff a water supply… there is nothing as basic as clean water for a household in this state or anywhere else.

So we have environmental groups that have restricted the development of water supply and have in their sights a reduction in current capacity now objecting to development of a new water resource on the grounds that it is expensive, uses too much electricity, and has alleged but unproven risk for returning the salt sludge to the ocean. Basically it’s “no, no, no, and hell no” and while we are on the subject, I am not hearing the “too much electricity” argument being applied to the fleets of plug in electric vehicles being imagined by environmental groups…

I say build massive desalination plants, supply them with abundant nuclear power, and refine the sea sludge into food grade “fine grey sea salt” that can be sold in Whole Foods. Win win.

UPDATE: After writing this I recalled reading about molten salt technology. Basically the way it works is that a salt sludge mixture is used as a thermal energy store and then used to power electricity generators. The salt sludge flows through solar panels which heat the mixture to approximately 1k degree (F), the heat can be stored for up to a week is used to power steam generators which produce electricity. This is a great example of how a waste byproduct can be used productively and why projects like desalination deserve to move forward.

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