In a recent podcast interview, water industry thought leader, George Hawkins spoke about the importance of communication when it comes to building trust with the communities we serve. The question asked how the water industry can earn back the trust that may have been lost in a post-Flint world.
When George Hawkins arrived at DC WASA, as it was called then, the utility was suffering from the aftermath of a public relations fall out over lead contamination. While DC WASA was working to handle the situation internally, the public perception was that the utility was withholding, or worse, hiding information. The community felt lied to, with some even feeling that the city had knowingly poisoned them. This experience left a mark on DC WASA. However, instead of letting scar tissue form, the organization used it as a launching point to change the paradigm around communication at what became DC Water. Here are three key takeaways from the podcast interview.
“Get the language right and don’t over promise.”
Don’t guarantee or promise the water coming out of the tap is lead-free. Speak to what you control, which is the water in the main line. Utilities are tasked with corrosion control and the monitoring of the water in the public distribution system. Utilities can’t guarantee the quality of the water past the meter in the premise plumbing but this shouldn’t be the focus of your talking points. Demonstrate due diligence and provide customers a consumer request lead testing program. Be upfront about health conditions that could make some people more susceptible to the effects of lead exposure, such as pregnant women, infants, or people with suppressed immune systems. Inform these individuals to take additional precautions while they await their lead-test results.
Don’t operate in a vacuum.
Don’t create your lead outreach program in a vacuum. Bring other lead prevention advocates and community leaders to the table. Get a diverse range of community perspectives to create a lead monitoring program that instills trust. This trust creates the buy-in necessary for engagement with your program. Even the best-designed programs create no positive impact without public engagement.
“When there’s a problem, be straight about it.”
The criticism during the DC WASA lead scare was that the utility had withheld information. DC Water shifted the paradigm by adopting a more transparent communication strategy that impacted all water-related public health concerns. The utility demonstrated credibility with customers by taking precautionary actions, even if it initially reflected badly on the utility.
Hawkins described one circumstance where operators suspected a potential chlorine release during a routine cleaning operation. The decision was made to issue a boil water notice as a precaution before confirmation of an actual release. As a result, DC Water found that while people may be annoyed by the inconvenience in the short run, they appreciate the proactivity in the long run.
“I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hawkins explains. “But we surveyed those customers in the following weeks and almost without exception, their opinion of us went up, not down.”
Communication best practices often translate across any crisis. “Don’t minimize the risks. Be transparent about what you don’t know,” Hawkins explains. “It’s painful but good for the long term benefit and strength of the enterprise. It builds trust by saying, ‘Trust what we’re saying to you because we’ll tell you the whole story, even if it’s a bad story. If that’s what needs to be told, we’ll tell it.’”
Samantha Villegas, public relations professional and founder of Savi PR, explains that it’s best to reveal not conceal. Self-preservation mode is a natural response to conflict. However, self-preservation is the antithesis of what you need to do to come out clean on the other side of a crisis. It’s a delicate balance. The question utility leaders need to ask is, does holding back information remove the public’s ability to make an informed decision. If the answer is yes, reveal not conceal.
Keep this all in mind, but also stay centered in reality. It’s not all doom and gloom, even if it might feel that way in the middle of a situation. Hawkins reminds us that conflict is also an opportunity to shine. Lead with empathy and accountability but use it as an opportunity to demonstrate the resiliency of your organization.
“Assure customers by telling them, ‘We’re going to do what it takes to make sure you’re safe and we’re going to fix it and make it better,’” explains Hawkins. “We can show our talent, even when it’s been triggered by a mistake.”