Commentary: How to Handle the Revised Lead and Copper Rule’s Reputation-Threatening Public Communication Challenges

By Mike McGill

On my first day in the Water World in 2007, I was assigned a bit of an unenviable task.  Due in large part to several straight years without rate increases, my utility was heading into the heart of winter knowing its water mains were going to pop like popcorn. 

They did, to the tune of more than two thousand breaks. My first few months were spent wrestling with my former news colleagues at all hours of the day and night. I became so ubiquitous several stations congratulated me when I ran off to get married, although they joked they’d see me when I got back. They were right.

Fifteen years later, I actually look back wistfully on those days. Explaining the need to replace aging infrastructure was relatively simple compared to the challenges we face today. Being able to hold up pieces of 80-year-old pipes on live TV and saying they could collect Social Security connected with people, and that helped my utility institute the rate increases they needed to restore some normalcy to the system.

It was also a simpler time because the criminal tragedy of Flint had not happened. And that’s what I call it, a criminal tragedy. People delivering safe, clean drinking water failed a sizable American city largely because of who the victims were and how little political power they had. 

What happened in Flint continues to hang over the Water World and sets all of us up for failure, yes, failure under the freshly revised Lead and Copper Rule. Having handled several lead events across the country, the typical discovery or even Action Level-exceedance has nothing to do with Flint’s diabolical circumstances. But that doesn’t matter. 

Whenever lead in water is the subject, the first question you get from an excited press and a concerned public is about Flint. The fifth question is about Flint. The last question is about Flint. 

When I first read the proposed LCR revisions back in 2019, I felt a bit of a pit in my stomach. As a long-time communications (COMMS) pro, it was easy to see the several traps that had been set for water providers. And then the proposal become permanent.

Why am I so blunt? Because just as we’re finally able to focus our efforts on getting the lead out of our systems, we could lose our customers’ trust in their drinking water. There are no less than five major COMMS challenges we face when it comes to keeping public confidence.

And we’re not ready for them. Not by a longshot. Many of us are going to find lead – that is the point, after all – but we’re not ready for the public concern, if not panic, that will take place when discoveries are made.

We’re not ready to explain the why’s and how’s of the lead service line inventory process, let alone deal with the reaction from the public when they discover we don’t know what kind of pipes we have. 

There’s a new testing process to describe that brings in some homes and businesses for the first time. This will create questions about our past work and whether the water was as safe as we said it was.

We’re not ready to roll out a new “Trigger Level” that creates two double-digit levels for action for lead when the public is constantly told there is no safe level for it.

We’re not ready for the multiple public relations nightmares created by the school and childcare testing regulations. We’re talking about kids and lead; it doesn’t get more visceral than that. Throw in that you’re going to have to pick one school to test before another and you’re going to be asked “Why is their child more important than mine?” in front of TV lights and angry auditoriums.

Finally, there’s the upcoming crisis COMMS requirement to inform one and all of a systemwide lead exceedance in just 24 hours. Not 30 days. 24 hours. Even utilities with full communication staffs are likely to struggle, let alone water providers without employees dedicated to COMMS.

Despite all this gloom and doom, there is a path to success under the new LCR. However, it will require the type of transparent public communications most water providers are uncomfortable with carrying out. 

I can’t stress this enough; you’ve got to become and stay the go-to source for proactive public information about your LCR efforts. It’s all a matter of timing; you can state the exact same messages before you discover lead and you look transparent and protective of public health. Say them after lead is found and your reputation will be at risk. “Why didn’t you tell us?” and “Did you poison us like in Flint?” will be the first questions asked and they’re unlikely to get much easier.

Details about all your LCR work must be easy to find on your website, so the public, the news media, elected officials, and community leaders will never be left wonting for information. Your employees, especially your customer service staff, must be empowered to calm concerns. 

You must be an active, leading participant in lead conversations online. If you aren’t, the small percentage of people who angrily post what they’ve Googled about Flint will take over as the experts on the subject in your stead.

Creating such a one-stop-shop isn’t a daunting a task as it seems, and you don’t need dozens of pieces of content to get started. It can be as simple as posting your work under the past LCR and adding news about your efforts as you go along. 

One key point to remember as you craft your clearinghouse of information: don’t fall into the trap that your work is done. Everything you put online should also be sent directly to the public, especially your customers, news media and key community stakeholders and mirrored early and often on your social media platforms. 

I said those magic words. Social media. I know many of you hate it, but you must be an active, leading participant in lead conversations online. If you aren’t, the small percentage of people who angrily post what they’ve Googled about Flint will take over as the experts on the subject in your stead.

Lead service line inventory work is a perfect fit for a proactive approach, even for providers who are stepping out on a sensitive subject for the first time. Several milestones for outreach naturally occur over what could be a two-year-long process; you don’t have to force anything. They include how you’re getting started (with an explanation of LSLI requirements); how the customers can help check their lines themselves; use of third-party experts for assistance; board votes and project funding; details about your replacement program when lead lines are found; and advance notice of the posting of your inventory when you’re done.

Finally, consider one perfect way to get off on the right foot. Bring the press and other key stakeholders out to a demonstration of how lead lines can be found by the utility and customers and how an LSL is replaced after it is found. 

Setting up such a scene proactively supplies the press with sensitive information – and great video of their own making – they can refer to throughout your LSLI. You’ll have gone the extra mile to be transparent and you can link to the coverage in your one-stop-shop for as long as you want.

On-site demonstrations were the backbone of my early aging infrastructure days. Proactive communication back then forged the path to understanding and success with the press and the public, even during the worst water main breaks. 

The same can be said with transparent COMMS under the Lead and Copper Rule. If we get out front NOW, starting with our LSLI work, the Water World will be well on our way to retaining public trust as we find and remove all our lead. But if we fail right out of the gate, the consequences will be significant and long-lasting. Just like in Flint.

Mike McGill is president of WaterPIO, a national firm dedicated to affordably helping water and wastewater utilities of all sizes improve their customer, media and crisis communications. In 2021, he launched to help utilities prepare for revised Lead and Copper Rule requirements. McGill began his career as a political and media news producer in CNN’s Washington Bureau, and as the News Planning Editor for the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *