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To support the goals of the Division, the Committee is launching a blog on the TAWWA.org website to highlight existing utilities and programs across the state. This blog will provide valuable information on existing programs and highlight how more information on the programs can be obtained, thus creating an online database of water education resources.

 

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Communication: Water’s Occam’s Razor

Posted By Karen E. Menard, Wednesday, February 7, 2018

 

 

Education Division – Consumer Outreach Committee Blog

 

All Things H2O                               February 2018 Issue

 

 

 

 

Communication: Water’s Occam’s Razor

 

Brace yourselves water friends. Have you heard the new “trend”? As a water professional, this one is getting a lot of attention on my social media feeds. This new fad is called “raw water” and everyone from the Telegraph in the UK to the New York Times and NBC News are reporting it. Some startup companies on the West Coast have started this new craze. In a nutshell, they are selling untreated spring water and in some cases water captured from the atmosphere.

In a world where more people have died from dirty water than all acts of violence, including war, it seems downright insulting to many of us in the field that this is even a thing. There isn’t a loss of opinion out there from people both inside and outside of the industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My biggest question is why? What have we done as an industry that has led our customers this far into the Twilight Zone?

A few years ago Texas was experiencing a major drought. The rain finally returned and the watering restrictions triggered by the drought were lifted in many places. While some people stuck to the twice per week schedule they’d grown accustomed to, others let the floodgates open.

While demand decreased during those years of drought, the cost associated with the treatment and delivery of that water did not. The sticker shock for many customers when those post drought water bills arrived was palpable. For some people it was absolutely unfeasible to them that their water use was that high.

Instead, many believed that the 70 plus cities across 13 counties had secretly collaborated and devised an algorithm that enabled them to charge customers for more water than they were actually consuming. Another conspiracy theory during this time was that water utilities were somehow pressurizing water to move it faster through the meter.

The truth was that several years of sustained drought and water restrictions had made high water bills out of sight, out of mind. Water demand in north Texas doubles in many cities in the summer, which is primarily attributed to outdoor irrigation. However, this explanation fell on deaf ears not even when meter techs tested meters and licensed irrigators performed system evaluations. They refused to believe it could be their water use.

Again, I ask why? What happened?

 

My theory is that it’s because water utilities are often like every woman’s first date nightmare. We don’t say much and when we do we only talk about ourselves. Sometimes what we say is unclear and hard to understand. We also tend to only focus on our bad days.

Well, we have a boil water notice right now.

Your wastewater rates are increasing……oh..you didn’t know about those?

Just found out yesterday about some new regulations that are going to require us to add a new testing requirement. That’s probably going to increase your rates.

Hey, the major street you use for your commute is going to be closed to one lane for a while as we replace this 54 inch line that is 60 years old.

We can be some real “Debbie Downers.” If that’s the only time we are communicating to our customers and if that is the only context they have of us, is it any wonder they think we lurk in the shadows at night up to no good?

Our industry has some significant challenges on the horizon. Many cities are struggling with balancing the growing costs of repairing or replacing aging infrastructure with a flat revenue stream. Industry reports by both American Water Works Association and Black and Veatch state that this imbalance is one of the greatest challenges facing our industry. Do you know what other issue makes those lists? The public’s lack of understanding of where their water comes from or any of the systems or services we provide. Perhaps the reason they don’t value what we do is because we never tell them or they aren’t engaging with the messages we are sharing.

The philosophical principle, Occam’s Razor, states that all things being equal, the simplest answer is often the solution.

As a communicator, I agree. I believe that consistent and effective communication is the simplest first step to earning public buy-in and support. Before we can successfully convey the value of water though, we need to support the value of communication and education in our field.

Most cities have a communicator on staff. They are a great first start, but I believe that water needs its own communicator. We need subject matter experts that can translate the complexity of our industry to the public. We often tend to try and teach everyone everything about water, from A to Z. Instead, we need to focus on getting them from A to A, awareness to advocacy.

We need to support communication staff by letting them produce content your customers want to engage with, which may mean more social media presence. Some city leaders see social media as Pandora’s box, that it’s just going to open the floodgates of negativity. I can tell you two things that, in my opinion, are as certain as death and taxes.

  1. The negative posts already exist with or without you.

  2. However, your presence becomes a platform for truth and it becomes a place where your advocates can come to your defense.

I have personally seen this on several occasions. There is no silver bullet solution. To communicate with our customers effectively we have to reach them where they already are.

I know the people of our industry. They are incredibly passionate people with genuine, vested interest in the communities they live in and serve. It’s an incredibly thankless job. I think of that every time I see posts by my friends who have been working a main break in freezing temperatures for multiple hours straight. The pulse of our community is in our hands and we take that incredibly seriously and yet, our community doesnt trust us. Our community would rather pay significantly more to drink bottled water versus drinking our product. In fact, they would rather consume “raw water” than trust the product and system we invest so much time, effort, and money into.

According to the AWWA report, “The water industry needs public support in order to effectively manage its systems and resources. If the (general public) is unaware of the value of water systems and the cost of maintaining them, public officials may be less willing to support necessary investments and associated rate increases for fear of losing constituent support.”

Investing in our infrastructure is of the utmost importance, but the story doesn’t end there. Let’s start from the beginning and invest in communicating with our customers. We may not be competing with the private sector’s bottom line, but we are vying for our customer’s attention in the same communication space. We need to up the ante.

Let’s turnaround that nightmare first date scenario and be the entity we know we are the one we know and love. Lets show them were stakeholders in our community too by sharing our stories with them. Better yet, let’s make their story part of our own.

 

About the Author:

 

Stephanie Zavala is CEO and Co-Founder of Rogue Water. Stephanie worked for various water utilities for ten years in the education and communication fields. She has a passion for creativity and community engagement. She excels at creating content that humanizes the men and women of the water industry and that makes water engaging for the everyday customer. Her proudest moments are writing a commemorative book and hosting a subsequent book launch for her former water utilities’ 100-year anniversary, as well as being a part of the first water utilities banquet at the city. Stephanie has received multiple awards in public education and communication from various agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Water Development Board, the Texas Section of the American Water Works Association and the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers.  Stephanie is a die-hard Horned Frog fan and has earned all of her degrees and certifications through her alma mater, Texas Christian University, including her Bachelor's degree in Entrepreneurial Management and Marketing, a Master’s degree in Environmental Science and her Public Communicator certification. 

 

 

Tags:  communication  occam's razor  raw water  Stephanie Zavala 

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