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Q&A: Taking on Utility Communications Head On

February 14, 2023
Min Read
Woman across the table from 2 men talking

How do water utilities keep their communities informed about the most important issues in a world with instant communication? That’s one of many topics discussed during a recent interview Trinnex® had with two of the leading communications leaders in the water industry.

We interviewed Andrea Hay (Director of communications, Green Bay Water, Wisconsin) and Kelley Dearing Smith (VP for communications and marketing, Louisville Water, Louisville). The interview focuses on how utilities are working on the Lead and Copper Rule Revision (LCRR) regulations and the importance of communications in the water industry.

Andrea and Kelley, along with AWWA Project Committee Members, published the guide for lead communications in 2022. The guide provides everyone an insight into best practices on LCRR public outreach and sets a tone for communicating with the community we serve.

Here’s a glimpse into our conversation.

The importance of lead and service line communications

We kick off the interview by asking about why utilities should get messaging about lead and service line requirements in front of their customers.

Kelley: The thing is, most people, while they pay their water bills, don’t know where they get their drinking water from. When utilities communicate, their customers will learn about the process their water goes through, which will help utilities strengthen public trust. However, even if LCRR is a priority, it shouldn’t be the first conversation we have with our community; the first conversation should be the story behind their water.

Andrea: I agree with Kelley. People believe that if a river running amongst us is polluted, that’s still where they get their water from, which may be incorrect. It is crucial we begin by telling the water story, and our guide lays the foundation to do exactly that.

Why telling a story is more effective

Kelley and Andrea talk about how to transition into stories and away from the scary language that will cause panic amongst our communities.

Kelley: You could announce that Louisville Water is investing 6 million dollars to replace a 1931 watermain using a such and such diameter pipe. A mom will look at it and only think if she will have water in the house, or if she can get her kids to school on time. Concerns like these are our communities’ priorities. Not the amount we are spending or the diameter of the pipe. Technical details can confuse laypeople. Something similar happened in Kentucky recently when a utility reached a school day care and asked to test their water to see if it has acceptable level of lead — a good enough reason to cause panic. We are incredibly knowledgeable and anchors in public health. But when it comes to communicating about public health and what we do, we must be human, and that’s where we sometimes fall short.

Andrea: In the news industry we are advised to keep our communication at sixth grade level. When we talk in terms of maximum contamination level, actual level, two parts per billion/trillion, it makes people think that their water’s unsafe. But that’s not the case. Another misconception is that lead comes from water. It doesn’t, it comes from pipes. Let’s talk about those pipes. I believe a few utilities are actually doing lead communications well, with complete honesty and openness.

“Even if you have 7–8 employees at your utility, you can still be the voice of the community and have conversations about facts. A few people may not get water bill, but when it comes to public health, they are just as important.” – Kelley Dearing Smith, AWWA Public Affairs Council Chair Vice President, Communications & Marketing, Louisville Water Company

How to talk about risky subjects

Following on to the original question about scary language, Kelley adds another angle on talking about risky subjects.

Kelley: When we think about lead — or PFAS or any other contaminant — it’s all about balancing risk. Unfortunately, we can never get to a detection that is zero because the science is advancing. We can detect lower levels, but just because we find lower levels, does that mean we are sick? Do I need to do something? That’s where the ongoing conversation about research and risk comes in. I remind people that Louisville water started in 1860. There were no microscopes, or germ theory. The goal was only to remove mud from water. We had operated for 49 years before we had a microscope and a treatment plan. Now, we can even measure something that is one part per quadrillion. Risk is a challenging thing to talk about, but it’s easier if the public already knows that you treat water before it gets to their house.

YOU MIGHT LIKE: The Growing List of LCRR Commonly Asked Questions

Andrea: We sit at the tables where we advocate for transparency in our utilities and sectors — we do want people to understand facts. We seek a balance of being truthful and reasonable with jargon.

How to best build a brand for your water utility

We end the interview by asking how to best communicate about water.

Kelley: I suggest— use your assets. Figure out what your story is and how would you explain it to your grandmother, a politician, and a 6-grader. And then use your assets. Whether you have five employees or five thousand, they should know the story of your drinking water and how you deliver it. Other point is your fleet, your structures. We have hung a banner on every flagpole around our reservoir. This tells the story of Louisville water. Also, if you are working in utilities, support the brand. In fact, we have trademarked our tap water — Louisville Pure Tap — and that’s the only water we drink.

About the lead communication guide

Kelley and Andrea have been working on the AWWA guide, and along with providing best practices on LCRR and setting a tone for communicating with the community we serve, the guide gives utilities a model, along with tools, that they can follow to facilitate their work. The team will keep adding new resources for water utilities, but the guide must be customized as per one’s needs to utilize it the best.

Have more questions about utility communications?

Kelley and Andrea will be heading to some events in the coming months. You can find them here:

Have general questions about technology in the water industry, reach out to me or the Trinnex team today!

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Written by
Steve Drangsholt, PE
Steve Drangsholt, PE
Steve is an active WEF leader, Trinnex account executive, and passionate water quality and equity advocate.

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