Reflections on Raleigh: Presenting New Ideas to NC AWWA-WEA

Earlier this week (November 12-14), WaterPIO attended the NC AWWA-WEA's 97th Annual Conference for a couple reasons. The first one was, yes, we were trying to drum up business.  Consistent, proactive public communications efforts are seen by many utilities as a luxury they would like to engage in but can't because it taxes their time or resources as they focus on their core mission: providing safe, clean water and wastewater services.

 

There is also a ton of trepidation because they've been burned before by the press and social media whenever there is a bad bill or main break. 

 

Our goal at WaterPIO is to try and get rid of that scar tissue and help hard-working people succeed in ways that may not have thought of before. Our clients include utilities that lack dedicated public information staff or have access to city/county PIOs because our four decades of work in water have proven track records of success. Our clients have brought us on board to help them get the good word out about their services. 

 

The second reason we were in Raleigh was to present our knowledge of how to communicate during a crisis and handle the discoveries of emerging contaminants like GenX in both our waterways and our finished drinking water

 

WaterPIO's services are a bit of a new concept for the water and wastewater industry; we were the only booth at the conference that addressed customer communications.

 

We also discovered just how fresh an idea it is during our presentation. I was told by NCAWWA-WEA volunteers that a public relations professional had not presented on a communications topic in years, those previous presentations about customer communication have always been made by engineers.

 

Whenever you speak at a major conference on a "Special Topic", you wonder just how many people will fill the room. As we get ready for Thanksgiving, we're thankful for the fact the room was packed with some 200 water professionals. We appreciate their attendance and engagement.

 

The first part of our presentation detailed how, in late 2016, we guided multiple utilities and local governments through more than three weeks of mandatory water restrictions caused by a massive raw water transmission break.

 

More than 12 million gallons of water supply was cut off from nearly 300,000 people. 

 

We walked attendees through the entire crisis communications process. First, we talked about how to prepare for emergencies in advance and how utilities, through proactive public outreach ahead of an event, can build the public trust that serves as an essential base to work from when a crisis occurs. 

 

As a former news producer, I know just how important the initial newsgathering and public information stages are to how the entire crisis is perceived. Important details must get out to the public as quickly as possible but in a managed manner.

 

The event evolved into a long-term crisis where customer and media expectations for information had to be met around-the-clock. We outlined how we kept frustration and anger from becoming the story ahead of the completion of the emergency response.

 

We introduced how the National Incident Management System was used to handle public communications during the crisis. Under the NIMS emergency response protocol, WaterPIO staff became the Unified PIO for the emergency and moved forward with a game plan for all of the affected utilities and local governments that "walked the dog" (the media) with content at key times throughout the day and night. 

 

Partnering with social media influencers, we pushed out key information to the public and addressed customer frustration and anger before it escalated out of control.  We showed how we embraced them in real time.

 

The successful implementation of our game plan yielded wide-ranging, positive results. And not one negative story was reported by the press during the entire event.

 

WaterPIO was invited to add to our presentation and talk about how to communicate information about emerging contaminants, given the revelations about GenX and other ECs being found in the Cape Fear River AND in the finished drinking water of multiple North Carolina water utilities. 

 

We spoke strongly about the need for utilities to prepare for the day a similar story may come to their doorsteps. Advancements in water testing, combined with academia's interest in protecting public health, will lead to more and more revelations. Given the slow deliberate speed of regulatory guidance, water utilities will be on their own for a significant period of time.

 

The Q&A focused on the NIMS process, handling social media, and how to handle messaging changes. We talked about how - on the first day of the GenX crisis - we were asked to go on live with local television stations to provide important context.

 

That day, and week, we focused on the reporting of the facts at that time, that the study involved a discovery of the chemical at the parts-per-trillion level for a relatively short period of time. We stated the water met or exceeded state and federal guidelines and stated that water professionals perform a public service - they would never provide a product they wouldn't use themselves.

 

We then spoke to the audience about how that message had to change after it was discovered the chemical had been dumped into the Cape Fear River since 1980, news that shocked everyone.

 

We candidly stated to the attendees that we transparently changed our message to reinforce the work of professionals to provide safe, clean drinking water while acknowledging the troubling revelations.

 

In closing, we will happily make or provide our presentation to anyone who wishes to receive it, although the GenX portion of the talk was covered by the simple posting of one slide. (We've been so involved in the controversy we were able to speak from the heart about our role.)

 

We invite water professionals and local government leaders interested in learning how to handle proactive public communications, crisis communications, and water quality concerns to visit our website - WaterPIO.com - or contact me here, by email at mike@waterpio.com, or by phone at (910) 622-8472.