Over the course of four pieces in just over two weeks, City Paper reporter Paul Bowers has kept us apprised of a troubling trend popping up in area mailboxes. Local water utilities are selling their logos for use as marketing tools to an organization selling a fairly useless form of protection for the pipe that runs between your home and the municipal water supply. The mailings are understandably causing confusion among some homeowners and angering others.
The gist is this: you receive a letter that, because of the presence of the water company’s logo, you take as coming from the utility itself, in our case the Charleston Water System. There’s a lot of Chicken Little talk about the cost and severity of a ruptured service line somewhere in your yard. Maybe that line is covered by your homeowner’s insurance. Maybe it isn’t. To help ease your mind, there’s a number you can call to sign up for a “warranty” from HomeServe USA, the company that actually sent the letter — not the Charleston Water System, although the public utility makes some money off every warranty sold.
And it’s not just folks in Charleston — and now Beaufort — who are receiving these kinds of letters. One of Mr. Bowers’ pieces details the number of towns and cities across the nation where water systems are actively engaged in campaigns to educate, and in some cases warn, the public about HomeServe and their so-called warranty, an insurance plan of sorts that they argue is completely unnecessary.
But as troublesome as it is that a public utility like the Charleston Water System has licensed its logo off to a private company in exchange for some filthy lucre, there’s an even more troubling aspect to this whole mess. After Mr. Bowers’ article ran questioning the Charleston Water System’s behavior, Kin Hill, the CEO of the CWS, didn’t go public to explain his company’s position. Instead, he sent an email to the Charleston Water System board assuring them that the “less than optimal” press coverage by the City Paper would be used to help the utility and HomeServe figure out how to “improve perceptions” of the warranty and the deal between the two firms. As with all crisis PR-related misdirection, the emphasis here is on pretending that nothing is actually wrong, and that we — the public — have simply misunderstood the horrible, horrible thing that we’re upset about. In the case of our neighbors in Beaufort, the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority has even hired a public-relations manager to make this deal more palatable to the people.
If you hear someone in the public realm talking about the “optics” of a situation or improving the perceptions of a sketchy plan with obvious flaws, you should do everything you can to have that person removed from public service and thrown back into the private sector so they can sell something to someone.
PR work is not the same as public policy work. Public relations are an anti-populist activity aimed at reducing the amount of valid information the public receives in order to guide them to a decision they might not otherwise make. PR hacks are not concerned with creating a democratic society based on informed choices. Instead, they’re concerned with creating a tyrannical dystopia where people are given false choices based on information tailored toward their emotions. It’s an infection that began with advertisements for consumer goods and has now spread to our public bodies and our political institutions.
Let me be clear: it’s bad enough that public relations are no longer seen as the odious activity of polishing up the turds of capitalism to make them appear palatable to the average person. Now our public utilities and institutions are more than happy to wrap up a pile of steaming PR crap in paper and ribbon and give it to us like it’s a birthday present. Why can’t they simply do their jobs and not create stupid problems that they will later have to explain away to us?