Talking PFAS ahead of Tomorrow's Summit: How to Inform Your Customers about Emerging Contaminants

Ever since the discovery of GenX and other PFASs in Cape Fear, North Carolina region last June, we've served as a leading water communicator on the issue of emerging contaminants (ECs).  We've helped several clients and elected officials, and given dozens of interviews on the topic.  As a result, several leading water associations selected us to deliver "lessons learned" presentations detailing what utilities should, and should not, do when it comes to communicating about ECs to their customers.


Over the first 17 days of May, WaterPIO spoke to five major organizations across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. The response we received was one of understandable concern; our main presentation raises alarm bells.  The threat to public confidence in drinking water from ECs is real and just beginning to take shape.


The Environmental Working Group, whose results we've taken issue with in the past, is out with an updated study that confirms what we are telling our colleagues in water.  More and more chemical contaminants are going to found in drinking water.  And in more and more places.  The issue doesn't have to be on your doorstep to affect your customers' confidence in your drinking water.  It can flow in from hundreds of miles away.


Thanks to advances in water testing technology, academics and activists can invest funding in contaminant testing with a near-guaranteed, news-making result.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these contaminants in our source waters.  The headlines they'll assuredly receive will lead to more funding, which will lead to more testing, and more... well, you get the picture. 


This "funding cycle" is not a vicious one - it is in the interest of protecting public health - but it will shake customer confidence in drinking water.  It doesn't matter if the contaminants are found at parts-per-trillion levels, their mere existence in our taps will end up as screaming headlines that will place water utilities on the defensive.


We all remember how we had to communicate about Flint with our customers, even if the tragic series of events in Michigan had little or no connection to our services.  The tragic mistakes and "alleged" criminal behavior required answers.  


There was a benefit, however, for those utilities that chose to step out and engage with their ratepayers about Flint.  The interactions showed a willingness to respond to customer concerns not of the utility's making, and they built public trust. 


WaterPIO knows of this from personal experience.  We put a message to our employer's customers about Flint in our CCR, so our ratepayers (and our staff) could easily refer to it whenever developments in Michigan made news.  It was also helpful with the press, and we told them they could call on us at any time with any question.  As a result of the response, the disheartening news from Flint actually added to our customers' confidence in the utility.


Our water industry talks lay out what worked when we handled the Associated Press's pharmaceuticals-in-drinking-water series back in 2008.  Our successful response back then - we worked for a Washington, DC utility at the heart of the story - provides a roadmap for handling EC revelations now. 


We also review the errors that are made when utilities are caught like a deer in the headlights because they haven't prepared to communicate on the topic.  We detail the planning that should take place NOW before another EC revelation affects a utility, and we also address the ways to recover if the headlines hit without advance notice.  (If you would like more information or want to review our presentation online, please contact us at (910) 622-8472 or via email at info@waterpio.com.)


In our view, the EC issue makes it even more essential for water operations to invest in proactive communications that build public trust before a crisis hits.  J.D. Power's 2017 water customer survey numbers bear repeating:  Making six proactive communications over a 12-month period jumps a utility's customer satisfaction scores by nearly 30%.  Customers will listen and believe their utility during a crisis if it takes the time to communicate with them BEFORE trouble strikes.


While our audiences have been universally accepting of the idea that ECs are a real threat to public confidence in drinking water, there has been some pushback on the idea that increasing proactive communication is the proper path.  Some of what we've heard... "We know what we're doing."  "We're the experts."  "Our customers won't understand.  Why create a problem when one doesn't exist yet?"


We answered these questions head-on during our Q&A sessions.  Our responses were simple.  That kind of attitude rolls the dice with your entire reputation, including the standing of your employees.  Not only will your customers blame you if an EC is found in your drinking water and you do not tell them first, but they also won't listen to you long afterward because they will believe you are not worthy of their trust.  Yes, they still have to write the check for your services, but support for your work will be hard to come by. 


Like many other water communications leaders, we'll be sitting by our computers watching the summit for the next two days.  We wish the participants well, and we hope that they can set the industry on a path to properly handle the problem.