Communicating the Value of Water: The ABCS of Water Communication

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By Stephanie Zavala


Water is life. It’s a catchy slogan, so simple in its truth that we often miss the forest for the trees. Water is, quite literally, life.

Yet modern-day water treatment, distribution infrastructure, and operational systems have made the gift of water so readily available, the public has forgotten how precious those drops are that readily flow from their faucets. The waste we produce disappears down a drain or a toilet, and we wash our hands of the rest of its journey.

So, how do we communicate the true value of water? More importantly, why does doing so matter?

The general public is unaware of, and often indifferent towards, the value of water and wastewater systems. But that doesn’t change the fact that a water main breaks every 2 minutes in America. And, according to the American Society of Engineers, it will take an estimated $4.8 trillion investment over the next twenty years to repair and maintain the nation’s water infrastructure.

It’s easier to see, inspect, and maintain the slow decay of visible infrastructure, which is why federal dollars and public attention often are directed toward roads and bridges, rather than the infrastructure buried deep beneath the ground. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

With federal dollars falling short, utilities are asking more of their customers and rate increases are happening more frequently. While rate increases are needed to address issues that have likely impacted people’s daily lives, the general public feels like the losing party in the transaction. Can we really blame the public for its skepticism if the only time people hear from their water utility is for funding or when something goes wrong? With the majority of our investment buried in the ground and our people operating behind the proverbial curtain, how do we earn the financial support and buy-in from the customers we depend upon?

In one word? Communication.

At Rogue Water, we approach every communication project through a certain lens, using the ABCS of water communication: assessment, branding, content, strategy. Having a simple framework builds the culture of communication necessary to earn the trust and support of customers. Public trust is the cornerstone of resilient water utilities. Here are four things to keep in mind when communicating to the public.

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Assessment:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
–Lewis Carroll, Author

Identify the metrics that mean most to your organization. What is your mission? What are the council’s priorities? How can metrics demonstrate a commitment to the mission and priorities? Keep in mind that what you measure may not easily fit on a spreadsheet, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. For instance, because communication efforts change behavior over time, it may be more important to track a reduction in angry calls over time than to track impressions on Facebook from month to month. After all, reach only matters if there’s engagement, and engagement is the gateway to behavior change.

Branding:

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a customer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
–Seth Godin, Author & Entrepreneur

Customers don’t get to choose their water and wastewater providers, but they do have a choice in whether they support you or fight you. Only one of those outcomes leads to progress. That’s where branding comes in. Branding is one of the most misunderstood elements of communication in the water industry. Branding is more than your logo, tagline, or color scheme—it’s the soul of your organization. Your brand is how you demonstrate your organization’s value proposition, and value is a currency that should always be reciprocal. So, invest in building a brand that not only solidly conveys your identity, but also creates strong ties to the community. Then, the only logical choice for consumers is to support you.

Content:

“No one ever stormed Washington over a pie chart.”
–Kendall Haven, Author

Your content should tell your brand’s story consistently. “Story” may seem like just a buzzword, but neuroscience research shows that facts and figures alone do not influence an audience—emotion is necessary for engagement. Just because we deal with life and death and cold, hard science doesn’t mean we always have to frame it that way. Baba Diuom famously stated, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” When we aspire to teach an indifferent, disengaged public, we must find the narrative that will break through the noise and grab them by the soul. This only happens through story.

Strategy:

“A work of art doesn’t exist outside the perception of the audience.”
–Abbas Kiarostami, Filmmaker

A common misconception is that, since everyone uses water, then everyone is the audience. However, when you attempt to reach everyone, you essentially reach no one. Think of it in terms of the age-old real estate adage: “location, location, location.” For effective communication, the adage would be “audience, audience, audience.” Tell your story but speak the language of the audience you seek to reach. Don’t guess what they want or value. Ask them. Invest in surveying and in market research to meet each segment of the audience where they are. Ask yourself, “Is this content meaningful to my audience?” If the answer is “no,” find out what is meaningful to them.

Communication Is Not a Project

The water industry is dominated by engineers. Engineers are innate problem solvers—once they determine a solution to a particular project, they move to the next project. However, communication is not a project; it’s a relationship, one where the work is never done. Don’t let that scare you from beginning the conversation. A water utility that invests in communicating properly with the community it serves is invested in the well-being of the people that makeup that community. And that’s something that won’t go unnoticed—or unrewarded.


Stephanie Zavala is co-founder and CEO of Rogue Water, a public communication company dedicated to the water industry. She is also co-creator and co-host of the Water in Real Life podcast along with Arianne Shipley, together known as The H2duO.

One Comment

  1. Such a large part of communicating the value of water comes from widening the view to the watershed level. If people begin to understand their place in their watersheds, and begin to get to know their watershed neighbors (ie – all the living organisms in the watershed), they will be more prone to develop an appropriate relationship with water. Water is life is not only for homo sapiens but for all the living organisms in the watershed ecosystem which we also need in order to sustain life.

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