An article in a 2003 American Water Works Association AWWA Journal reported on the results of a national survey conducted by Bojinka Bishop that identified the determining factors that most commonly contribute to the success of water utility communication. Bishop, AWWA’s former Director of Public Information and Public Affairs conducted the research on best practices in communication while at Ohio University, where she was the Sloan Professor of Public Relations. The survey received responses from 175 large utilities (with more than 10,000 service connections) and 33 small utilities (with fewer than 10,000 connections).
The research found that meeting ten “principles of authentic communication” is the key to successful water utility communication programs regardless of topic, audience, region, or utility size. The Principles of Authentic Communication© were developed by Bishop and colleague Melissa Stanford, who served on the Board of AWWA among other positions. The Pacific Institute added some guidance to the original ten principles in 2013 and both versions appear repeatedly throughout the literature. We referred to Bishop’s principles often while we were preparing our Communicating Water Rate Changes white paper and decided to provide an adapted version here, as a supplemental resource.
The principles below are based on both Bishop and Pacific Institute versions. Keep them in mind when planning and preparing your communication programs, both while formulating your key messages and when writing copy for your collateral. If you outsource your copywriting tasks, it’s a good idea to make sure contractors have a solid grasp of the principles as well.
Information is provided as it is known, ideally through an ongoing outreach and education program. Then when a rate change is necessary, communications should begin early enough to allow for public consultation before actions are taken or major decisions are made. Once a change has been decided upon, plenty of advance notice will allow customers to fully understand the consequences before they appear on their bills.
Information is pertinent to the interests of the parties involved. Impacts on different stakeholder groups should be anticipated and addressed in the communications strategy. Materials should hone in on local, regional, or customer-specific concerns as much as possible, in order to avoid messaging that is either bloated or off-key due to the inclusion of irrelevant information.
The information provided must be factually accurate.
The core issues are fully addressed. The seriousness of a situation should be neither over- nor understated. For instance, if the utility is facing a down-graded credit rating because of insufficient debt coverage, that fact (and its consequences) should be clearly communicated to both governing bodies and customers. If incoming revenue is insufficient to cover operating costs or imminent capital projects, this should also be clearly communicated.
Communicate the whole story on the relevant (see above) issue(s), not just the parts your audience may find easiest to swallow. Explain the needs that precipitated changes to rate structures and clearly demonstrate how the changes will meet those needs. For instance, if a rate increase is required for new capital improvement projects, materials should be released addressing the state of local infrastructure, the need for improvement, and the importance of increasing revenue to meet that need.
Communications should employ clear, unambiguous language, appropriate for the audience. Avoid technical jargon, if at all possible, and when unavoidable, provide definitions. Present information in a clear and logical format using visual aids, where appropriate. Public presentations and supporting materials should be reviewed from the audience’s perspective.
Ensure information is publicly available in a variety of formats, via a variety of channels. All information, including any source materials, should be easy to locate and interact with. Provide information in both digital and physical formats, e.g. a web page and bill inserts. Hold public meetings in convenient locations, at convenient times for most people, and make sure they’re well publicized. Depending on your community’s demographics, you may also need to make sure information is available in multiple languages.
Your communications strategy should welcome open dialogue and provide mechanisms for public input, e.g. via email, face-to-face meetings, telephone, response cards, etc. Stakeholder views should be heard and given serious consideration. Staff resources should be allocated to a well-defined process for receiving, recording, and responding to customer concerns, and that process should be clearly communicated to customers.
All communications are polite and courteous, demonstrating compassion and respect for the circumstances, attitudes, beliefs, and values of all parties.
Ensure communications are consistent across all formats and channels. Words, whether written or spoken, must match both actions and each other. Also ensure your communications are consistent with your own organization’s policies, (e.g. your Code of Conduct, if you have one).
Following these principles will help you create communications that will effectively convey your message, improve understanding and acceptance, and help to minimize negative response.
For additional help with communications planning, check out 3 Steps to Communicating a Rate Change to Your Customers.
Or if you’re preparing for your own rate changes, download Waterworth’s Communicating Water Rate Changes white paper. This interactive guide informs on communications best practices and includes interactive worksheets to build out your own communications strategy.