PR fiasco: Yet another black eye for the bullet-train authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is such a multifaceted debacle that encyclopedias will someday have to be compiled to capture the breadth of its boondoggletood. But even by the standards of the rail authority, the fiasco that played out this spring and summer with its main spokesman and its high-powered PR firm was particularly odd. The same officials who gave their blessings to a 12-year disinformation scheme, to an illegal business plan and to building the first link of the project in a lightly populated area in the Central Valley decided there was no good reason the bullet train had a bad image — so it must be the flacks’ fault. Now a top figure in the PR industry has responded — publishing an enjoyable takedown of the rail bureaucrats who make the gang that couldn’t shoot straight look like champion marksmen.

This is just what California High-Speed Rail Authority leaders deserve for trying to blame their messengers. In-house spokesman Jeff Barker left in late spring. Barker was indefatigable in pushing the project and would try to spin all bad news with an even-tempered insistence. But what I heard was that he was partly blamed for what the rail authority perceived at its weak response to being called a disaster by respected independent evaluators.

Memo to the CHSRA: The greatest spinner in the world can’t spin away credible criticism that a state agency is poorly run, inept, incompetent and worse. There is no possible strong response to such a sweeping indictment; there just isn’t.

But the poobahs who made the decisions that Barker found impossible to defend saved their sharpest ire for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. In a March 23 memo, rail authority board member Quentin Kopp complained to CHSRA’s CEO, the elegantly named Roelof Von Ark, that the bullet train was unpopular, and he knew why:

Since Ogilvy’s engagement in February 2010, its inadequate performance can be measured, by, among other things, worsening legislative, media, academic, and popular comments in the public domain about our project.

What a load of crap. The month before Ogilvy was hired saw the turning point in the bullet-train debate. On Jan. 11, 2010, the LAO put out a terse, blunt eight-page report saying the rail authority had an illegal business plan that counted on forbidden taxpayer subsidies to attract the billions in private investment that the project had to get in order to be built.

It’s been all downhill ever since. The LAO had spoken.

Kopp is beyond belief if he blames Ogilvy for being unable to make the LAO’s findings disappear. He and the other rail authority board members are infinitely more responsible for the bullet-train woes than the PR people.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Ogilvy announced a while back that it wouldn’t seek a renewal of its $9 million contract — something never seen before in Sacramento, a PR firm dismissing its client before the client scapegoated the firm for the client’s manifest failures.

Now Rose Gordon, a senior editor with PRWeek, a national journal of the public-relations biz, has contemplated this ugly picture and responded with a warning to her profession.

After stories came out that the rail authority couldn’t find a PR film to take its millions and peddle its lies, Gordon offered this comment:

Agencies frequently grouse over the RFP process from unannounced cattle calls to the involvement of pencil-counting procurement trolls. They also have their favorite clients who allow them full involvement in the business, creating a true partnership, and others they wish they had never signed on that dotted NDA line. Sometimes firms’ accusations are spot on, other times not. The mess that is the California High-Speed Rail Authority PR account falls into the former.

PRWeek has chronicled this account over the last two years, through a mangled RFP that was blackened by hints of favoritism; two agencies, including one that fired the California agency itself; and back to another RFP, which was tossed out and restarted within months, only to have the organization say this week that it would like to keep the work in-house and maybe spend time building out its internal staff instead of adding externally. In short, an incredible, colossal waste of time and money – on both sides.

It’s difficult to know all the factors that played a role in the destruction of what is an important communications project. One factor, of course, is the rail proposal’s own controversial history and development in the state. The massive infrastructure project is scheduled to begin next year but disputes continue over its future and the money needed to complete the ambitious vision.  …

If I were running an agency, I wouldn’t want to touch this account. Yes, it’s worth a lot, particularly given the potential for a continued drawn-out public affairs battle, but I wouldn’t want to risk the absolute agony it would be sure to inflict on my people, not to mention the loss of resources involved in preparing for a pitch. It’s clear that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is one of the worst offenders when it comes to being a bad client. I have to imagine it’s not going to be easy building out that internal staff either.

LOL. Here’s the takeaway: The people running the rail authority are such dolts that the bible of the PR industry says to PR pros,  “Keep your distance — even getting millions of dollars isn’t worth the ‘absolute agony’ that comes with working on the bullet train account!”

Meanwhile, back to Quentin Kopp, the retired politician who played a key role for more than a decade in setting the stage for the bullet train debacle. Interstate 380 in San Mateo County is named the “Quentin L. Kopp Freeway.” What should be the threshold of money that is wasted on Kopp’s Krock before he loses this honor? I say $3 billion.

If the freeway’s not renamed, then at least let it fall into disrepair and chaos. Kopp deserves such an awful legacy after he’s gone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>