Why Communication is So Important for Today’s Public Agencies

Veteran utility communications expert, Melissa Elliott, on the importance of effective communication.

Raftelis’ Melissa Elliott, who has 20 years of communications experience in the utility industry, including leading Denver Water’s communications program, sits down with Doug Bean to discuss the importance of communication for today’s public organizations.

The following is an excerpt from the interview. You can listen to the full audio version below.

Doug Bean: How did you even get into this business and why?

Melissa Elliott: Like a lot of people in water, you kind of fall into it, and then I fell in love with it. I have a degree in journalism with an emphasis in public relations and landed at the City of Aurora, Colorado in their city manager’s office as a public information officer, so I did lots of media relations and public relations. In 2002, Colorado had a massive drought and I was tasked with helping our water utility with communications. The utility at that time got to about nine months of being totally dry for a city of 300,000 people. My job was to get customers to reduce water usage, which was a very strange business model, as you know. I did over 750 media interviews at that time from as far away as the BBC in the U.K. All of that was designed to get people to really understand the seriousness of the issue and to rally behind the cause of reducing water usage, and it was successful. So, that was my introduction to the water industry, and I was hooked.

DB: Back when I started in the business, the philosophy was keep your head down, and you’re out of sight, out of mind, but it appears that things have changed a lot recently, and that strategy might not be the best. Can you talk a little bit about that shift and how we need to be ahead of things as opposed to keeping our head down?

ME: Water utilities can’t have bad days. Everything must be 100% on or else people can get sick or we can cause environmental harm, so we must be experts at what we do. And for a very long time, the public trusted us to be experts at what we do. What has changed over the last 5 to 10 years is we’ve had a number of crises involving water, whether that’s water quality or lack of water. Then on top of that, you have to factor in the power of social media. People are looking for a different way to get information, and they are empowered by social media. Whether it’s accurate or inaccurate, they can find all kinds of ways to get information now, where 10 or 15 years ago that was not the case. Then, lastly, our municipalities and our water and wastewater utilities are desperate to invest in infrastructure. We’ve reached a time where we have to spend money, put projects into the ground, and grow to support our communities and the changes that are occurring. All of those things have hit at a crossroads, and we have a lot of municipalities and water utilities that are behind in getting out and communicating proactively with the public that they serve.

DB: How do you convince or urge folks who are still in that old paradigm that things will be better if we’re not out front, to understand the importance of actually telling the story and telling the story before there is a crisis?

ME: I point to examples of others that have done this and gained a foothold demonstrating that reputationally they are going to be better off. The other way to open that door is to not talk about the big project that we’re going to be doing in the future, but let’s talk about the positive things that we’re doing today. Focusing on informing the public about what it is that we do day in and day out – protecting public health, protecting the environment – and ensure that the people you serve have a sense of what the service is that you provide. That way when we get to the big project, the community has heard from you regularly and is more ready to understand the challenges you are looking to solve. The third way is to start with identifying who the decision makers and the stakeholders are within the community and building relationships with them. This isn’t the general public, but it’s who the general public listens to. Is there a business chamber that we could become members of? Is there a Rotary Club? Is there a sister municipal agency that is in the community? These people can be influential and helpful in the future. Once you start building relationships in the community, you start gathering supporters around that utility manager and it becomes a much more comfortable scenario for them to be proactive in their communication.

DB: You’ve talked about building a base and communicating even when there’s not a specific problem or issue. Can you talk more about how important it is to have an ongoing communications program and how it builds a real base and support even without a big issue going on at any one time?

ME: Yes, it’s really a best practice, to have an ongoing drumbeat in your community about what it is that you do. Whether you just schedule weekly or monthly to put content on your website and out on social media, or a regular series of presentations that you do in the community, or you set up a speakers’ bureau so that you’re out telling positive stories about what it is that you do every day. The last thing you want to do is meet your customers when you have to ask them for something and they don’t know who you are. That’s what gets municipalities and utilities into trouble. If your customers haven’t heard from you in 18 months, and you want to ask for a rate increase or talk about a project that’s going to have a lot of impactful construction in a busy roadway, you are setting yourself up for a challenge. These customers don’t know what you do or what the benefit is to them because they have not heard from you. And that means they are much less likely to be supportive or even neutral about what you want to do. So, having that regular drumbeat of positive communication can really lay the foundation for those asks.

DB: Can you think of a time when you have been working either with the city or with the utility that you had a particular victory in the communications / public information realm, and describe that situation?

ME: I worked on a project that was the first time potable reuse would be used as a new water source for a community.  Anytime you’re working on a potable reuse project, you know that we have the technology to make this work and make it safe, but with these projects – and a lot of projects – public perception can make or break you. As an example, this project was named after the South Platte River, and as the communication lead on the project, I knew that even what we called this project needed to be palatable to the public.  I was concerned that in that community the South Platte River did not have a positive connotation in our customer’s minds when they thought of water sources. I convinced leadership to do some focus groups on various topics – how we talk about the project, words that we used, and even the name of the project. Customer reactions were enlightening, and we ended up renaming the project Prairie Waters. Also, we did a lot of taste tests on the water to see what level of Total Dissolved Solids would be palatable to consumers with the new water source. We wanted to make sure the technical staff could dial that in and that we were not going to have problems later. That project is ongoing today, and it’s seen as a real shining example of how potable reuse can be done in the dry west.

DB: Social media has really changed the way we communicate. Can you talk a little bit about the place for social media, the importance of it, and the effective use of it?

ME: Absolutely. Like it or hate it social media is now the preferred news source. We see that 80 percent of U.S. adults are on Facebook. Nextdoor, which is fairly new, is a social media app that is for your neighborhood, and it’s in 75%  of U.S. neighborhoods. News media use Twitter almost exclusively – sending news releases out is considered old school. I have worked on projects where we have better data using Nextdoor in some communities than we do using the utility’s own customer contact list. So, we know people are using social media, yet municipalities, and in particular, water and wastewater utilities, have been very slow to engage in social media and to use it effectively. Very few utilities have developed an actual social media plan, and what that means is your customers are having conversations – perhaps about your utility – but they’re getting their information from somewhere else and not from you. Your utility is not a trusted source of information because you are not in the communication circle. Because you’re not in the conversation you don’t know what’s being said, or maybe you hear about it from one of your employees that saw something on their personal social media. There’s been several times when I’ve been called in to facilitate public meetings because of something that started on social media. It’s incredibly easy for misinformation to be spread quickly, and then we have hundreds of people on a social media platform demanding some action from a municipality or water utility. Then the media picks it up. If utilities and municipalities can establish a social media presence and be out front of that we can correct misinformation quickly and connect with customers in the place they want to connect.

DB: You talk a lot about external communications, but what about internal communications?

ME: Yes, in our day-to-day work we realize that our human resources are probably the best resources that we have. Internal communication – making sure your own employees are up to speed, and understand what’s happening in your organization, and can answer questions – is critical. You can take the pulse of your organization and how engaged they are. Your employees should and can be your strongest advocates out in the community. If you don’t know if they are, that would be a good indicator that you may want to look at your internal communication planning and start doing some things to help engage them and make sure that they are your advocates.

DB: It always amazes me, every place we go, they say that they would like to have more communications within the organization about what is going on that effects their job, number one. And, number two, is that every employee is a communications person to the public and the public gets their perception or feelings about the organization based on the last person they talked to, and often that’s a field person. So, those internal communications are really essential to the perception of the utility in the community.

ME: The last thing you want is for your employee to be at a barbecue and get asked something about your organization and they shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know, they never tell me anything.” And I think we all know that happens.

DB: I will put you on the spot. You’re the communications person and you’re working with the utility director, and you just have the budget session to recommend a rate increase in order to do all sorts of wonderful things – capital, operating, or whatever – and you walk out of the council chamber and the television station comes up, puts a camera in your face, and says to you, “A rate increase, that will impact a lot of people. Tell us why this is important and why people should feel good about this.” What is your sound bite?

ME: We always teach people to do three top messages, and it’s best to use evidence-based messages. You’re going to talk about the benefits to the community and where they money is going – so, for example, “Your water quality is our highest priority and governs every decision we make. Funding from the rate increase will go to pay for treatment plant upgrades to improve water quality.”  The second thing you’re going to say is that the governing body for the utility used a deliberative process to make this decision. “We carefully weighed several options and asked a citizens advisory committee to provide input.” And then third, you’re going to talk about how it impacts people directly. “Customers will see small increases on their monthly bill, amounting to less than $1.50 for the average customer.”