Water utilities are struggling with the best ways to communicate with the public during this unprecedented time, so the American Water Works Association hosted a free webinar on Friday, April 3, 2020 to advise water leaders and communicators on best practices during Covid-19.
The webinar, titled “Be a Trusted Source: How to Handle Communication Challenges During Covid-19,” is one of many webinars hosted by AWWA.
Melissa Elliot, the Director of Strategic Communication Services at the consulting firm Raftelis said there are five things to keep in mind when communicating with the public about Covid-19.
Communicate constantly & in the moment.
“First, there is no way you can over-communicate about Covid-19,” Elliot said.
Because people are concerned, Covid-19 is getting all their attention, so we should give it our attention too, recommends Elliot.
“Now is not the time to talk about topics that don't relate to what everyone is actually living at the moment,” Elliot said.
But that doesn’t mean that we have permission to ignore communications either.
“When you are silent on water or wastewater treatment issues of any kind, you're leaving an empty space for other, less credible, voices to get in and spread misinformation,” said Samantha Villegas, a Senior Consultant at Raftelis.
Villegas compared giving no information and not communicating to that of a flight which has hit turbulence.
“No news is scary for people,” she said. “Think about when you've been on a plane and hit turbulence. It's really bumpy. The flight attendants can barely keep their balance, and you have to lift your drink off the tray to keep it steady. Is it reassuring to hear nothing from the captain, or reassuring to hear, ‘hey, we're experiencing some turbulence, but it's going to be okay?’”
So, we should tell our customers that we are here to help.
“Our mission as water and wastewater utilities to protect public health and the environment has not changed,” said Mary Gugliuzza, the Media Relations and Communications Coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department. “We're all still doing the same work we did six months ago.”
That goes for leaders too.
Leaders need to lead.
“Second, leaders need to be out front,” Elliot said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the CEO or the general manager.
“It needs to be the person who has the best visual vocal presence, someone who is reassuring, someone who is affable, and someone who looks, seems and feels trustworthy,” Villegas said. “And sometimes that person is a couple rungs down.”
However, she said that your leader should be comfortable and trained to speak to general audiences.
Kelley Dearing Smith, the Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Louisville Water, recommends creating a communication plan and a crisis team of people who can speak for the utility.
She said your communication plan does not need to be elaborate; it just needs to have a key message that you can repeat often.
The key message we should be telling our employees and the public is that we care about them.
“First and foremost, the health and safety of your drinking water and actually of you, that's our priority,” Smith said.
Put people first.
“Third, put people first in your communication,” Elliot said. “Operations are critical and explaining what we do is important for people care about people first.”
Villegas said we need to be calm and reasonable when talking to the public because their fear might cloud their ability to hear.
A Princeton psychology and public affairs professor, Daniel Kahneman, “found that people process information differently when fear is present,” Villegas said.
And by explaining what we do using reason, we can reduce people’s fear.
“During crisis, your communications approach needs to prioritize making people feel better and returning that conversation from that scared emotional state to one of reasoned discourse,” Villegas said.
People are understandably worried about their health and their families, and you show that you’re putting them first when you’re worried about that too.
“This pandemic affects all geographies, all businesses, all classes of people, and no group or areas immune,” said Villegas.
We need to show people that we understand and that we care.
“Authenticity is very important in building trust,” Elliot said.
“Fourth, put a very human tone on your communications,” Elliot said. “Now is not the time to use our industry jargon.”
She said we should use caring and positive words to connect with people emotionally to build their trust.
“So how do you build trust, especially during a crisis?” Villegas said. “Trust happens when these three things happen: promises are filled, expectations are met, and values are being lived.”
All three take honesty.
“Honesty is super important, telling it straight, with no promises, no speculation,” Villegas said.
And some of that is with ourselves.
“You have to ask yourself, what would reasonable people appropriately expect a reasonable organization to do in this situation,” Villegas said.
She said if you are still trying to navigate building your communication with the public, she recommends reading AWWA’s risk communication guide, “Trending in an Instant.”
By communicating well now, in a time of crisis, we set ourselves up as a trusted community partner later, Villegas said.
“We need to use this time to establish our utilities as trusted resources and community partners,” Gugliuzza said. “We need to take advantage of the opportunity we've been provided to tell our story.”
Use what you have.
“Fifth, use the tools that you have to communicate now,” Elliot said. “If your website is out of date or your social media posts are not in sync with what's happening in the community, you look tone deaf and you're going to risk losing the confidence of your customers.”
Update the messaging on your current platforms, but you don’t have to go crazy.
“Nothing gets people more calm and more interested in what you're doing than with operational transparency,” Villegas said.
Operational transparency is just showing what your staff does on a daily basis.
“Fort Worth Water is using photos of employees at work to let our customers know that we are here for them,” Gugliuzza said. “Reminding our customers that we are essential and letting them know we're still on the job during this crisis is something I've seen many utilities doing.”
She also recommends developing YouTube videos for outreach to students at home or finding other ways to interact with a more captive audience.
Gugliuzza said she recognizes that not every utility has a huge communications department, and that’s okay too.
An easy way for smaller departments to still interact with the public is to share content that city, county and university partners have produced.
“We can be part of sharing those messages [about the steps people need to be taking],” Gugliuzza said. “The more we share, the more broad reach they will have.”
She also recommends asking other staff, maybe those in customer service who have more time now, to help with messaging.
Every little bit helps.
“Now we can show why we are needed in a way that is really tangible in this crisis,” Gugliuzza said.
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