What Donald Trump Can Teach Water Utilities

Love him or hate him, you've got to admit Trump's campaign has been interesting. Here are three observations from the campaign trail that could help utilities stand out.
What Donald Trump Can Teach Water Utilities
Dominique Gomez is the director of operations at WaterSmart.

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No one can really say how long Donald Trump's presidential campaign will last. If you told most veteran journalists or political junkies a year ago that Trump would be a front-runner through fall 2015, few would believe you. But Donald Trump has certainly been successful (still polling No. 1 in most national polls).

Love him or hate him, his campaign illustrates many of our natural human biases and tendencies — either intentionally or unintentionally. Here are three prime examples that could be relevant to water utilities:

1. Shorter is better
Political campaigns, or at least the successful ones, are all about communication. Not all candidates communicate effectively or memorably, but Donald Trump is a clear outlier. His messages are big, simple and memorable. Although there might be other candidates who have more in-depth policy priorities or offer more detail, you can count on Trump for actually getting his point across. What will he do on immigration? Build a wall! What will he do about ISIS? Take them out! Other candidates tend to be more long-winded, and even someone who has been paying attention might not be able to tell you exactly what Jeb Bush or Rand Paul might do on these issues.

The truth is that when it comes to the basic need to get your message across, many water utilities make the same mistake. Most people who’ve ever received a notice of a public hearing or a door hanger from a water utility know that brevity is not always a water utility's strength. This is not to blame utilities – they often have a lot of information to convey – and the issues utilities often need to communicate (rate changes, water quality, irrigation restrictions, etc.) might be fairly complex.

Nevertheless, if water utilities want people to remember what they have to say, it’s worth noting that shorter is better. A study earlier this year that got quite a bit of press showed the average adult attention span decreased to eight seconds this year – down from 12 seconds in 2000. Even if a water utility needs to provide detailed background information, the most important message must be clear enough to grasp in 10 seconds or less.

Trumpify your message – short and clear is just more memorable. 

2. It’s not as simple as it seems
One of the more striking claims Donald Trump has made during this presidential campaign is his ability to readily master subjects in which he has little experience. Most candidates spend hours trying to bone up on employment numbers, foreign affairs and health care statistics. A candidate’s background usually gives them a leg up in one area or another, but Donald Trump may be alone in his approach to debates and interviews.

Trump makes a big deal of refusing to prepare, and generally avoids offering many specifics on his plans for most subjects (see above regarding brevity). In a September interview, after it became clear he lacked a deep understanding of the current key players in the Middle East, he refused to apologize, instead claiming that, if elected, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.” He similarly has boasted that he will do more for women’s health care than any other candidate, and, during the riots in Baltimore this spring, that he would “fix it fast.”

While not everyone will claim the quick mastery of difficult subject matter like The Donald, people do tend to overestimate their knowledge in subjects where they are clear novices. Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this bias – believing you are far more skilled or have a better understanding in a topic than you actually do – can be overcome by just a bit more exposure or education on a topic. 

For water utilities, understanding this inherent bias might help explain why it can be so difficult to get support for investment in our water systems. Your average citizen has almost no understanding of the complexity of our water system (and what it takes to maintain superior water service), but the less they know the more they may feel they know. More regular communication, like the kind WaterSmart offers its utility partners, can help customers gain greater appreciation for the value of water and offer more support to their water utility.

3. The more I hear it, the more I like it
Lastly, Donald Trump has benefited from, and perhaps even purposefully made great use of, another behavioral science truth: The more we hear about something, the more favorably we are disposed toward it. This finding confirms the old saying that there is no such thing as bad press. Called the mere-exposure effect, this innate bias means that regardless of context, we like things more just by having been exposed to them more.

A quick look at media mentions over the summer shows how the mere-exposure effect could have catapulted Trump into first place in the polls. A look at more recent media mentions shows a sharp decline in Trump coverage compared to the rest of the candidates, and a decline in his lead in the polls. The desire to remain in the headlines can explain some of Trump’s more recent extremes, such as his call for banning all Muslim visitors to the U.S. The backlash from proposing increasingly extreme ideas may pose other problems for Trump, but for a while he may believe the press outweighs the risk.

Water utilities should take this to heart. For many utilities, providing clean, reliable drinking water without ever attracting the attention of the community has long been a recipe for success. But the less the average person ever hears about its water utility, the less favorable they might feel toward it.

In addition to having a clear, succinct message that helps individuals understand a bit more about their water utility, it might also be important to get a message out frequently. A newsletter once a year? Great, but a friendly, easy-to-understand email or text message once a month is better. You don’t want to find yourself out of sight and out of mind.

Source: www.watersmart.com/blog

About the author
Dominique Gomez runs operations for WaterSmart Software. She also advocates for policies that prioritize municipal water conservation as an important solution to drought, water scarcity and population growth. Before WaterSmart, Gomez focused on climate and environmental policy first as a Governor's Fellow for Governor Bill Richardson at the New Mexico Environment Department, then later as a consultant at Cascadia Consulting Group in Seattle. She has also spent time working on natural gas policy at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and on corporate sustainability at Hilton Worldwide.


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