Updated: Sep/02/2017 4:38pm
NACWA, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, just finished hosting two different conferences back-to-back in St. Louis. The first was the 47th annual Leadership Conference followed by the 2017 StratComm: H20.
I had an opportunity to sit down and speak with Mary Conley Eggert, Founder and Chief Innovations Officer of GlobalWaterWorks, about the StratComm: H20 Conference she attended.
JENNIFER: Mary, I’d like to get your take on this conference and how it stood out from previous conferences. What does Strat-Comm H2O stand for?
MARY: The Strat-Comm H2O Conference stands for Strategic Communications in Water, and it definitely lived up to its name. Not only did the speakers and real-world examples illuminate the value of communications and customer engagement for today’s clean water agencies, but they created a sense of urgency around the digital opportunity.
JENNIFER: Why should utility leaders care about customer engagement. Don’t they have a natural monopoly in communities they serve?
MARY: That’s a very astute observation, Jennifer. Believe it or not, this was the first communications workshop for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Until just recently, the primary means for most utilities to communicate was through billing statements, and some utilities judged their success by how well they stayed out of the news. Water scarcity and contamination stories in the news, coupled with escalating water rates, have focused public attention on our water utilities. And the addition of social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, means that customers expect timely, transparent and truthful communication from those who serve them.
JENNIFER: What type of communications strategies should be in place?
MARY: In a service organization like a utility, every interaction with a customer provides a communication opportunity, which in turn helps build the utility’s brand and reputation. The utilities in attendance learned about the communications strategies that have been successful, spanning communications research, strategy, messaging, media relations, crisis communications and social media.
JENNIFER: I’m sure that all of those are important, but which one stood out the most to you?
MARY: I have to say that it was the comprehensiveness of the program, and the use of case studies to demonstrate the impact of these programs, that I found most valuable. The speakers and examples all helped to demonstrate the impact of a fully integrated marketing and communications program. That type of program starts with a strategic plan, and is supported with key messaging, media and social media relations, a crisis/contingency plan and, of course, metrics.
JENNIFER: Why is messaging so important in today’s digital communications?
MARY: Richard Levick, Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, spoke on this question. In order for utilities to “engage” their customers they need to reach them on an emotional level. Two ways to do this are through fear (as we saw with Flint, Michigan) or with hope (as NACWA instilled by changing it name to National Association of Clean Water Agencies from American Municipal Sewerage Association). Our choice of words or messages will either address our customers’ fears or inspire hope. In thinking about how utilities communicate, Levick suggested the communicators in attendance change the way they view their role as well. “You are not utilities. You are heroes – delivering [life-sustaining] clean water every day.”
JENNIFER: What do heroes do that’s different from utilities?
MARY: Heroes save. They put their constituents’ interests above their own, and invest their time and talents in answering cries for help or pre-empting those cries. It was a lofty proposition that Levick proposed, but one that participants saw modeled in the case studies and experiences shared by speakers.
JENNIFER: Typically, heroes shine in times of crisis. Were there any examples of that?
MARY: Yes, Sandra Kilroy, of King County Wastewater Treatment, discussed the flooding disaster that occurred at the West Point Treatment Plant outside of Seattle on February 9, 2017. It was unprecedented with 235 million gallons spilled, including 30 million gallons of raw sewage. King County notified their customers of the disaster via Twitter, and kept them engaged and apprised with an integrated program spanning the Web, social media channels and traditional media relations.
JENNIFER: What percentage of utilities are currently using social media and how effective has it been?
MARY: The Water Research Foundation just finished a research project and learned that 65% of major metro utilities use social media, 45% of mid-sized utilities and less than a third of small utilities. Still, the most active utility on social media reports that they’ve connected with just 3.5% of their residents through social channels.
JENNIFER: Why is that?
MARY: WRF’s research project included studying that very question. The answer they came up with was that most customers are not receiving what they want on social media. Customer surveys have told us that the utilities post too often on environmental accomplishments, public events and utility employee announcements. What the customers want, and need, is to hear about crisis communications, service updates, construction and traffic updates, environmental tips, offers and incentives, and plumbing tips, offers and incentives. They don’t care about which employee won “employee of the month.”
JENNIFER: So, for the utilities that have not had success, it sounds as if it may be because they just haven’t started. What do you recommend as a starting point for these utilities?
MARY: I am a big believer in having S.M.A.R.T. goals for projects, and what I mean by that is that your goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-based. Whether you’ve just hired a marketer for your utility or are migrating from manual bill payment to online bill payment, the objectives for your communications program should demonstrate your ability to move people in the direction you want them to go. If you’re not communicating at all, agree that you will put up a web page in the next year with answers to the most frequently asked questions at your utility. Then, add a screen shot of that Web site and the URL (web address) as an insert in the billing statement. If you’re communicating with clip art, consider adding some real photos and videos of people in your community, so people connect at a more personal and emotional level, and invite them to share their experiences with water.
Whatever you do, you want to have a crisis or contingency plan. The crisis you might anticipate is never the one you will get, but you can map out a communications strategy and a notification process that will enable you to update stakeholders in a timely manner and ensure your crisis doesn’t turn into a disaster.
If you don’t yet have one, our GlobalWaterWorks team has created this template, which can be customized to your needs: http://bit.ly/CrisisTemplate.
JENNIFER: Thank you Mary for taking the time to speak with me. I would like to invite our readers to visit GlobalWaterWorks.Org for more information and connect with me at CurrentWater.CO for more news on the water industry.
Correction: The correct date for the flooding at West Point Treatment Center in Seattle was February 9, 2017, not 2016 as previously stated.
For more information on GlobalWaterWorks
For more information on the West Point assessment
For more information on The Social Media for Water Utilities report
For more information on StratComm H20