Communicating with your stakeholders in COVID-19’s rapidly changing environment

Samantha Villegas, Senior Consultant (Email)

COVID-19 presents a range of challenges for utilities right now, including ensuring level of service, assisting low-income customers, and evaluating finances. Your utility also has a solid opportunity in this moment to build more trust with customers with frequent, honest and consistent communication. How? By being a key source of important information about your service and product, as it relates to customers’ lives during this pandemic. Your customers need to know that they can depend on you to keep water flowing, that your treatment process effectively kills the coronavirus, what to flush (and what not to), and how you’re helping to alleviate customer anxiety about late payments. Talk about all the ways you are looking out for your staff and your customers – but don’t be silent, as that can have negative consequences at a time like this. Read on for some specific tips on how to communicate through COVID-19.

Silence Isn’t an Option

At a time of crisis, people crave information from trusted sources, and water and wastewater utilities are, indeed, the trusted sources for information that pertains to their mission. Providing reassuring information that the water is safe to drink and use is a key way water utilities can have an important voice in the matter. Your silence can send the message that either you don’t care, or, that perhaps you don’t have good news to share. And, more critically, you leave a void where other less knowledgeable, less trusted sources can swoop in and speak for you.

How is Communicating During COVID-19 Different than Normal?

People are anxious and afraid right now. The research of Nobel Prize Winner Dan Kahneman tells us that people process information differently when they’re afraid. They may not be hearing or processing information rationally or reasonably. So, leading with compassion is important right now.


That means, literally, instead of starting with “Your water is safe to drink,” you preface that by saying: “We share your concern about the coronavirus. Just like you, we are worried about our health and the health of our loved ones. On top of that, we are also worried about how our lives may be impacted by this extraordinary situation.”
Then you can transition into facts.

“What gives me solace is knowing I have safe water to drink and use, right from my tap. Our treatment process effectively removes viruses, including COVID-19. And we’re testing it daily, weekly and monthly to assure it continues to meet federal standards, which are the best in the world.”

Apply the 27-9-3 Rule

Also, keep it simple. Package your messages in brief soundbites that are easily digestible. When under stress, as many folks are right now, they can’t process long messages. Apply the 27-9-3 rule. That means each message should have no more than 27 words, be read in 9 seconds, and be delivered in three pieces. This proven approach was developed and tested by risk communication expert Vincent Covello of the Center for Risk Communication.



Key Messages

Both water and wastewater utilities have a lot they can be talking about. Some of the specific messages utilities can be sharing right now (after a caring message of compassion) include:

What Platforms Should Utilities be Using to Communicate and How Frequently?

Utilities should be using all the best tools they have for communicating with customers. The right tool is the one they know their customers are using – so if that’s Facebook or Instagram or Next Door, get on there. Social media is of course where it’s at for most people, but the utility website could also have a message and a page dedicated to COVID.

Be Inclusive

Consider all your stakeholders, such as those that speak a different language and consider translating all your messages for them. Make sure your website is ADA compatible so it can be accessed by people who are visually impaired.

Know that some segments of the population are NOT on social media so consider how to reach them. Traditional media (newspapers, radio and broadcast TV) may be a great option right now. They will likely welcome any fresh angle on the virus that they can get, and utilities have one. If you have imagery or video available, even better.

Operational transparency – showing, not just telling people, how you clean the water, will go a long way to building trust and value for the work you do. Another way to reach more elusive audiences is to consider all your partners and community groups who may have an “in” that you don’t, such as the faith community, schools, public health departments, and HOAs. And, ask the ones you are in direct contact with on social platforms to be your voice for you, especially when they are speaking with older members of your community.

Don’t forget your 24-7-365 storefront, your website. Help your customers help themselves by sharing all this information there, and don’t forget the websites of other key health organizations, such the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and your local health department.