Monthly Archives: March 2016

THE FLINT DISASTER: Will Accountability Please Stand Up

“Here’s to Flint!” said Mayor Dayne Walling, lifting his glass.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, his toast would serve to commemorate the tragic “switch” in 2014 when the city of Flint changed its water supply from the city of Detroit to its very own Flint River. In combination with the city’s aging pipe system, the new water supply toxified the tap water flowing into every Flint home. Meanwhile, government officials described the switch as an austerity measure intended to help soften the blow of the city’s looming financial crisis.

Fast-forward two years; today, the aforementioned celebratory toast has turned into one of our nation’s most disturbing contemporary tragedies.

Many questions remain unresolved. Did the city of Flint sacrifice the health and safety of its residents to save approximately $1 million a year? Would the tragedy have been avoided altogether had the situation occurred in a less diverse, more affluent neighborhood? What are the long-term health outcomes for the victims of Flint who were exposed to the lead-laced water? Why did their voices go unheard for so long?

Congress hoped to give closer examination last week when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Both officials faced a withering barrage of questions and condemnation. Both were asked to resign. Neither did.

Politics aside, the continued blame game, finger-pointing and failure to accept full accountability on both sides—particularly for the popularly elected Snyder—is fueling the public outrage. Is good PR important to earning and keeping trust between an elected official and his/her constituents?

Let’s examine closer.

Fumbled public statements and responses haven’t helped Snyder’s office (nor the EPA) in gaining the public’s trust. In fact, numerous steps by these figures fly in the face of key PR tenets during a crisis: own your actions, communicate the facts and misdoings in a transparent manner, and inform people what you are doing to fix it.

Strike one. The facts were largely downplayed from the get-go. During a crisis, it’s critical to report the facts and interpret them objectively. Otherwise, you’re stuck in “media quicksand.” The more you say, the worse it gets.

As The Los Angeles Times writes,

“… The river drew more worrisome headlines when the GM engine plant in town decided to stop taking Flint’s water in October 2014 because it was worried the high levels of chloride, which the river water also contained, would corrode metal parts.

“The city insisted the water was still safe. GM employees, Flint officials pointed out, were still drinking the water at the plant. But then, on Dec. 16, 2014, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality notified Flint that it had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Later, and in a background memo to the governor, the state Department of Environmental Quality downplayed the danger. Throughout 2014 and into early 2015, the state of Michigan continued to placate residents.

Strike two. Lack of transparency. As The Guardian reports this January:

The governor’s office declined to answer questions about what role it played in the decision-making process that led to Flint using the local river as its main water source, but what is clear is that the lead-contamination crisis took place while the city was under the control of Snyder-appointed emergency managers.”

Let’s not forget that the state of Michigan, under Snyder’s administration, originally authorized the switch.

Strike three. Accountability that only goes half way.

In a National Journal interview from earlier this year, Snyder admitted that his administration was aware that the state De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Qual­ity was mishandling the Flint water crisis in mid-2015. Even staff aides made him personally aware of the complaints about the drinking water.

Testimony from last week’s congressional hearing confirmed Snyder’s acceptance of some accountability, but it didn’t stop him from simultaneously pointing the finger in the opposite direction. (The fact that the EPA’s McCarthy is just as guilty misses the point.) In addition, it has become clear from media reports that everyone convinced each other that everything was “OK” because no one wanted to be the one to call out a problem.

Too little too late? To be fair, Snyder is on public record for saying, “I am sorry, I will fix it.” He also penned an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press following the congressional hearing declaring that he is not going to walk away from the disaster but will be a leader in solving the problem. He also gets high marks for recently recruiting the whistleblowers/heroes who raised concern early on; they are now on his team. Numerous officials at lower levels of government have lost their jobs as a result of how this crisis was handled.

Yet Snyder still faces an uphill battle in winning back the public’s trust.

NPR recently reported that he is losing support in Michigan, with approval rating falling 30 percentage points. A recall campaign has been launched. According to The New York Times, Standard & Poor’s lowered the outlook on Michigan’s credit rating to stable from positive, citing the costs of dealing with the Flint crisis, and also with a looming financial crisis affecting Detroit public schools.

Will Flint ultimately become Snyder’s “Nixon” or “Katrina” moment as a result of his PR blunders? This question, while a worthy one that will be watched by politicos and serve as a playbook for PR consultants, falls secondary to the health and safety of the thousands of people impacted by Flint’s toxic water.

—Monica McCafferty, Director of PR


The Big Fat Prize − 2016

Great Work … Tough Decision

snwaTeamIn each of the last five years, R&R Partners has awarded what we affectionately call The Big Fat Prize. It is an annual cash award presented to the team that created the campaign or initiative that most exemplified our philosophy of building and protecting our clients’ brands. Winning requires excellence in strategic insight and thinking, the quality of the work itself and, of course, results.

The rules are simple. Entries are limited to one 8 ½ x 11 page. No fewer than three, but no more than five, finalists are chosen to present to the judges. Presentations have one rule – they cannot exceed 30 minutes. The judges are president and chief brand officer Mary Ann Mele, SVP/strategic consulting David Ellis and me.

This year, seven entries were submitted, one of them delivered by Brandi Skrtich’s dog Buddy (a very good dog). Three were ultimately selected as finalists.

And so on Wednesday, February 17, teams representing the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Nothing’s Sexier Than Saving Water Compliance Campaign, Boeing’s new corporate website, and the Clark County Animal Foundation’s In-Fur-mercial campaign brought their best to the judges in a series of three 30-minute presentations.

Then the hard work began. Never before in its Big Fat history has it been more difficult for the judges to choose a Big Fat Prize winner. For the SNWA, it was a campaign that overcame some early obstacles to ultimately create $14 million in earned media (40 times the media spend) and, most importantly, motivate Southern Nevadans to save more than 1.5 billion gallons of water in the span of just two weeks. Or the Boeing team, who was faced with the daunting task of consolidating 22 separate sites and more than 11,000 pages of content into one cohesive site of fewer than 1,000 pages with fully functional desktop, tablet and mobile versions. Finally, there was the Animal Foundation team, who tackled their pro bono project with virtually no budget whatsoever and managed to turn the fortunes of the client around with some of the most unexpected and inspired creative seen in that or any other category for quite some time. In fact, their use of the time-honored infomercial format to promote pet adoptions was so spot-on, they actually won a special award from the Electronic Retailing Association (basically, the infomercial industry) in a competition they didn’t even enter.

In truth, any of the finalists would have made a very appropriate Big Fat Prize winner. All three presentations were excellently done, every entry produced results that R&R will proudly promote well into the future, and the work at the center of each was strategically based and incredibly smart.

But the rules say we had to pick a winner, and after three days of thought and discussion, the SNWA finished ahead by the narrowest of margins. It was the toughest and closest call that the Big Fat judges have ever had to make.

Faraday Future – A Win For All Involved

Faraday Future was considering four U.S. sites for its billion-dollar manufacturing facility for electric vehicles. Nevada was chosen, contingent upon passage by the Legislature of an incentive package (re: taxes) to seal the deal.

PM_Faraday Concept Car[2]

That was the easy part. Once Nevada was selected, R&R Partners had to navigate a multitude of pieces of this puzzle. We worked with the city of North Las Vegas to ensure its needs were met. We facilitated negotiations with the unions and Faraday Future to ensure we’d have Democratic support for passing the legislation, and resolved transparency issues to also ensure Republican support. We worked with the SNWA to facilitate water issues, given the site for the plant has no existing infrastructure. We worked to educate the client on how Nevada works, and what concessions it would need to make to secure the deal, helping them to avoid any political vulnerabilities. We media-trained and created messaging for the client to effectively communicate its position. We lobbied the Legislature to pass the necessary bills. In short, we tackled this issue from every angle to create an overall strategic plan for the client to be successful.

The results? The Legislature passed all the bills required for Faraday Future to bring its facility to Nevada. A couple of weeks later, it had an incredibly successful, long-awaited unveiling of its concept car at CES. And then Faraday Future hired us to continue to help navigate some of the commitments it made to the state as part of the deal, both GPA and PR services.

The Driving Force Behind Ford Vignale’s European Market Growth

How does Ford wow European driving enthusiasts and compete with the likes of BMW and Jaguar?

Make it powerful. Make it elegant. Make it timeless. That’s the new Ford Vignale.

The R&R engagement team has been selected once again to play a part in Ford’s European market growth by helping to expand its exclusive line of Vignale vehicles to four additional models over the next two years.

We got behind the wheel and designed and developed a Ford Vignale website, and created a new interactive kiosk design.

So Uncool: How We Flipped the Script and Made Greenspun Junior High the Uncoolest School in Vegas

When I joined R&R Partners, I was thrilled to step into the glamorous world of advertising. I imagined myself a female Don Draper … working on exciting TV commercials, making creative pitches for clients, and collaborating with some of the best ad agency minds out there. And yes, the culture at R&R is part of what makes it one of the best places to work in Las Vegas. What I didn’t expect is how collaborating on our Flip the Script anti-bullying project would be one of the most fulfilling, impactful projects I’ve ever taken on in my career.

The initiative began in 2011, centered on the idea of standing up against bullying by turning it on its head and “flipping the script.” Throughout the campaign’s history, which has even resulted in Nevada Senate Bill 276 (strong anti-bullying legislation), relevant messaging and thrilling events like USA Network’s Concert to Rock Out Bullying have put this important topic at the forefront of pop culture.

This year’s mission? We partnered with the Public Education Foundation to select three Clark County School District junior high schools as our clients for the next round of the initiative. Three teams of R&R employees signed up as volunteers for this project, and I was fortunate enough to be assigned team leader for Team Purple. We were comprised of several amazing people throughout many different disciplines − design, copywriting, media, research, leadership, PR, production, insight, brand − who pulled together to create a campaign that would meet our clients’ needs.

Speaking of our clients for this project, they were atypical. Namely, they were a group of leaders in sixth, seventh or eighth grade at Greenspun Junior High School, starting at age 11. Our clients were energetic, have been fluent in social media their entire lives, and shed extensive light on what bullying meant in their world. We welcomed these clients to R&R’s offices for two separate brainstorms − one to understand their (and their parents’) experience. The second session was to present our campaign concepts to them.

Resoundingly, one of our two options stood out to these students. The concept that they unanimously voted on was Uncool. Literally. If bullies are cool − think Regina George in Mean Girls or the students of Cobra Kai dojo in The Karate Kid − then our clients wanted to be uncool. If sitting next to a lone student at the cafeteria is uncool, these incredible students were all-in. If standing up for someone was uncool, these leaders were all about it.


After this direction was determined, the R&R teams burst into action; our team was lucky enough to have the talents of Kristen Hart, our creative lead, manifesting our Uncool design. Through her, and other team members’ tireless efforts, our campaign concept became a reality. We had T-shirts, posters, banners and other items designed for our launch event and an ongoing student store to reinforce the campaign. Sarah Catletti, R&R brand manager who moonlights as foundation co-manager, says, “It was important to the team to make sure that after our campaign launched, Greenspun could continue to be the Uncoolest school and maintain the program. In partnering with school administration and teachers, we were able to provide branded materials for the student store that kids who were caught being uncool could purchase with Uncool bucks as currency.”

greenspun2All of this hard work for our clients culminated in an Uncool assembly to kick off the program. The team tirelessly sought out local talent who were behind the mission to donate their time and skills and to join us at the event on February 26. And talent we got! The ladies from the UNLV Pom team kicked off the event with a high-energy routine, and JC fromMercedes in the Morning on Mix 94.1 FM was a dynamic emcee. He kicked off a program of entertaining vignettes, including the No. 1-ranked flyweight UFC fighter Joseph Benavidez, singer/songwriter Franky Perez, and Flamingo headliner and juggler Jeff Civillico.

Each performer touched on how being uncool was the new cool, and our clients themselves kicked off their program at their school. “I had some of our eighth-grade boys raving, saying it was the best assembly they’ve attended at Greenspun! Their favorite part? The pom girls! “There was something for everyone!” shares Greenspun’s leadership student council co-adviser Dana Martin. “…Your team knocked it out of the park!”

With happy clients and a top-notch event, Team Purple ended this week tired, yet knowing that we had made a difference in students’ lives. As I draft this, proud of the work we did as a team, I can’t help but smile and think that Greenspun was just one of the three schools this project has impacted. Similar campaigns and events are taking place at Becker and Fremont junior high schools. “The Flip the Script initiative and the ways that our employees volunteer to positively affect others is what the R&R Foundation is all about,” says Jim King, principal and leader of the R&R Foundation.

Welcome to the sexy, life-changing, exciting world of advertising. Don Draper would be proud.


Perception, reality … and Ciudad Juarez

To be honest, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about visiting Ciudad Juarez. Perceptions can do that to you. Color your opinions. Sway your feelings. Paint a picture in your head that may, or may not, have anything to do with its reality.

That’s how it was between me and Ciudad Juarez. Here’s the thing. I’ve binged on The Bridge on television. I sat in my local multiplex for a matinee showing of Sicario. I’ve listened to the music of At the Drive-In. I’ve been on more than one Southwest flight leaving El Paso and flying directly over one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. And I’ve seen the news reports over the last 10 years of drug cartel violence throughout Mexico, but especially within Juarez.

It all added up to a pretty scary picture. A picture I was more than willing to hold as the truth until I learned that we had signed Ciudad Juarez as a client. It was now our job to take the perception I just described and turn it around. Mold it into a narrative that describes today’s realities while acknowledging yesterday’s reputation.

  1. Perception and persuasion are what we do, after all. But this was uncharted territory for me. Did I have the wrong idea about the city? Was the reality of Juarez in direct opposition to my media-fed beliefs? I was about to find out.

The project began last December in a conference room in our Las Vegas office. I spent the better part of a day with 11 representatives from Juarez (and probably 10 or 11 of us – the room was pretty crowded) talking about challenges, goals and aspirations for their city. The day was a revelation. The people from Juarez were a joy – smart, friendly, articulate, open, and most importantly – honest. They were under no illusions. They knew their city was suffering from a problem of perception. And they fully acknowledged that, during the worst days of cartel violence, their reputation was well earned.

But in the course of that day, while we worked on the messaging strategies to begin convincing business owners and site selectors that Juarez is a hard-working city that deserves a closer look as a smart, and safe, place to do business, they managed to convince me that the situation in their city is changing. While still not perfect, the violence and the threats have decreased significantly over the past five or six years. And the attributes that make the city a strategically solid location for certain types of businesses (primarily manufacturing and distribution, with aspirations to high-tech in the near future) were still very much in place.

So on that day, we all agreed: Our first priority is changing the conversation from what’s wrong with Juarez to what’s right with the city.

Jump forward in time a month. The initial strategic work was done. Now it was time to travel to Juarez and present our recommendations. And as I’ve already stated, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about traveling into the city that once had the highest murder rate in North America. But there are times when you just have to journey into the belly of the beast − only to discover the beast isn’t so scary after all.

IMG_0272 The day began in a conference room inside the city’s sparkling new children’s museum. That facility alone almost re-wrote the entire narrative for me. It is a children’s museum that any city – I repeat, any city – would be immensely proud to call their own. It was staffed by a professional and courteous team and by 10 that morning, was filled with the voices of hundreds of school kids there on field trips to learn about their city, their history, their environment and their heritage. It was no coincidence that this beautiful new facility was the site for our meeting. It was stunning physical proof of all arguments we will soon be making on their behalf.

After the presentation came a tour of the city. I would never go so far as to describe Ciudad Juarez as beautiful. But it isn’t frightening or depressing either. It’s clear that this is a city that works for a living. We saw wide streets, working-class neighborhoods, familiar brand names (Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald’s) and many of the horizontal two- and three-story factories, or maquiladoras, that are the center of its economy. And throughout, there were people out and about, going about their daily lives. The fears of six or seven years ago were nowhere in evidence. We ended the day driving past the university and touring an exciting new technology center that will help lead them into the future. I never felt less than completely safe.


The day ended with an hour-and-a-half wait at the border checkpoint to get back across the Rio Grande (or the Rio Bravo, if you’re on the Mexican side of it) and into the United States. While we were waiting, I asked the polite and well-spoken young woman who had been tasked with driving me back to El Paso what exactly had happened to quell so much of the violence. She said that the law-abiding leaders of the city and its business community had simply decided enough was enough and slowly but surely, they were taking their city back. Showing my natural skepticism, I asked if it was also the result of one of the two warring cartels actually winning and driving their rivals out of the city. She admitted that was a big factor as well. I’m guessing it’s some combination of the two.


But in the end, does it really matter? The fact is, that while still battling many issues, Ciudad Juarez is definitely a city on its way back. Its citizens combine a powerful work ethic with resilience and pride that have allowed them to create a new reality that lies in stark contrast to the violent and negative perceptions.

I was able to see that on my day in Juarez. Now it’s time for us to help them show that reality to the rest of the world.