Imagine It's Crisis Time. Here's How to Communicate With Your Public.

Advisor Mike McGill says water and wastewater utilities should make communications with the public a component of the operations protocol.

Imagine It's Crisis Time. Here's How to Communicate With Your Public.

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Water agencies today can’t afford not to communicate with their publics.

The issues are diverse: COVID-19. PFAS. Odors. Lead. Sewer overflows. Water main breaks. Boil orders. Facility improvements funded by rate hikes. To win public support in both good and difficult times, utilities need to make sure customers understand the work they do and how well they do it.

So says Mike McGill, founder of WaterPIO (for public information officer), a communications firm based in Hampstead, North Carolina. McGill launched the business in 2016 with a background in local and national news reporting, public relations and communications with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Loudoun Water in Ashburn, Virginia, and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in North Carolina.

McGill and his WaterPIO colleagues combine more than 70 years of experience working in water and three decades of expertise in news production and public relations. They help utilities meet a variety of communication challenges, including management of crises. McGill offered advice to utility leaders and plant operators and managers in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Why is communication to the public so essential for water agencies?

McGill: There is so much that has to be communicated in water and wastewater, and the way the world has changed, with social media and everything, it doesn’t make sense for a utility not to communicate. The simple fact is that we live in the instant information age. They need to be out front talking about how they provide safe, clean and reliable services. Then when a crisis happens, they have built up some trust to draw upon.

What are the consequences of failing to communicate effectively in a crisis?

McGill: In this day and age, if you fail to respond appropriately in a crisis, your reputation can be wiped out in days, and can be tarnished for years. If you want to make a case to the public for strengthening your systems, and it involves a rate increase, and the public doesn’t trust you because you failed in an earlier crisis, that hampers your ability to do your job.

How is communication relevant to the professionals who manage and operate treatment facilities?

McGill: To people who operate the systems and make sure everything works properly, we say: Treat communication like any other part of your operation. It works in conjunction. It’s not off to the side. It’s not in a binder sitting on a shelf collecting dust. It’s wholly integrated with operations. So if you have a problem, you have an action plan, and the communication about that action plan is perfectly in sync. You could have the best operational plan possible, but if you fail when communicating it, people will think it’s the worst plan possible.

What is the single biggest thing to remember when communicating in a crisis?

McGill: I always say that accuracy is Job 1, but speed is Job 1A. The way you achieve that is first to have a proper plan in place before a crisis hits. You test that right along with your operational plan. If you have done the work in advance, if you have the information 80% to 90% complete, then you can just plug in the specifics of the situation and push it out quickly. And you are going to be ahead of the game. You have approval processes and staffing delineations in place — who does what, when and how, and who approves it. If you’re not prepared in a crisis, if you’re throwing things against the wall, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to look bad, and it’s going to harm your reputation.

What happens with communication after the first stages of a crisis?

McGill: You rely on your plan to get your initial response out fast and accurately. Then you get your audiences on a regular system of updates. You inform them first, so before their questions come to mind you have already answered them. That is vital. Consider especially the critical customers in your service area. If they don’t understand what’s going on because you’re not communicating, then all bets are off. They will go elsewhere for information, which usually will not be correct, and that’s going to cause new problems. They may call the press or elected officials for the answers you’re not giving. Then the press and the elected officials turn on you and say: Why aren’t you communicating? That can derail your operational response.

How can a utility organization deal effectively with social media?

McGill: As part of your plan, you have to be active rolling out information on social media. That information will mirror what you put out for the press and public. Then you have to engage on social media to prevent misinformation from wrecking your communications work.

In the context of a complete communication program, what is the relative importance of social media?

McGill: I do not insist that social media is the end-all be-all. Most people don’t engage on social media saying, “Now I get to interact with my water and sewer utility.” But you do have to be there as part of the conversation. If you’re not, someone else takes that conversation over. You’ve got to take part, you need to have a plan, but don’t miss the forest for the trees by avoiding working with mass media.

Why do the traditional media retain so much importance?

McGill: If you produce a video for social media, 250 people might see it. But if you work with the press on a story to get out proactive information about what you do and how you do it, 10 to 100 times as many people will see it. And you’ll have a third party — the reporter — saying how well you’re doing your job.

What is the most common mistake utilities make in communication?

McGill: They go into a bunker. They feel people don’t understand and appreciate them. No one gets into water and wastewater for the glory — it’s a public service. But you have to be out there assuring your customers that you’re doing the job and doing it well. If they search on Google about water and wastewater, they’re going to get a lot of negative information. You’ve got to be part of the communication process. Out of sight, out of mind might have worked in the past, but not anymore.

In what other ways can utilities’ communications fall short?

McGill: One is lack of appreciation for how essential communications are. We see people who have their operational plans nailed down to a tee, but they treat communications as kind of a necessary evil. In reality, if you are not communicating your actions well, then your actions will be viewed as poor. Another is failing to make a commitment. Some utilities say, “We’ve done some communication. We dipped our toe in the water, it worked out all right, but we won’t commit to it.” They are missing a lot of opportunities. You will lose the success you’ve had if you don’t consistently build on it.”

Can you give an example of the importance of sticking with communication?

McGill: We had a water utility client whose lead exceedance was on the order of 50 parts per billion. We explained to the press and the public what we were going to do about it and how it would take time, in order to set expectations. We took a little bit of a hit in the press, but we actually we got some pretty decent coverage. Six months later when we got our results, we were still in the 30s, twice the action level. At that point a lot of people would say, “We’re not going to talk about that.” That’s where you go wrong. Instead, we said, “Yes, we’re in the 30s, but look at the progress we’ve made already.”

How receptive do you find agencies to be in laying the groundwork for crisis and communication generally?

McGill: It’s getting better and better. We see organizations that want to plan more, that see the dangers of being caught off guard and the benefits of having a plan. There are many water issues coming up because testing technology is improving and we’re finding everything in our water. If they’re not ready for that, they’re going to be in big trouble when something is found. We have significant threats to public confidence in our services. More and more utilities understand that. Some old adages have had to age out.

What is an example of an adage or an attitude that needs to change?

McGill: When I started my business, there were always people in the back row of my presentations saying, “Sure, kid. If we tried to explain ourselves to the public, they’re not going to understand it. They’re only going to get confused. So we’ll tell them what we want to tell them, when we want to tell them.” But in this instant information age, if you take that attitude, you’re dead. The adage we had in my newsroom was: If I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last. That’s as basic and essential as it gets. Pushing out information whenever you have something to say, that will help you win.

What do you advise for a utility that doesn’t yet feel comfortable about communicating on a regular basis?

McGill: I don’t propose they go beyond their comfort level, unless I can make the case that doing so is a great benefit. We work with utilities that don’t want to go proactive yet. We understand that, but at least let’s get ready.

What does that “get ready” phase involve?

McGill: If a utility doesn’t yet want the spotlight on them, OK. But let’s get halfway there and have a plan in place, so that whenever you hit a problem, you’re ready. And when you decide to do proactive work with the press and the public, it’s easier. You’ve already of climbed a few steps up that ladder.

What would you say as a final word to treatment plant operators and managers?

McGill: They are typically not the people who control communications in their utilities, but what I say to operators is that they can help by understanding how important communication is and by bringing that up the line, incorporating it into their operations plans. A solid communications plan is going to help you make the case for more funding when you need it. And if you have a crisis communications plan, then when the worst happens, you’re ready to go. You have the confidence to say, “We’re going to get through this, and here’s how.”   


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