Communicating GenX: How to Inform the Public about Emerging Contaminant Discoveries
Water utilities have long relied on regulatory guidance to help them handle contaminants of emerging concern. Unfortunately, advances in water testing are vastly outpacing the regulatory process. As a result, several “new” emerging contaminants (ECs) are being found in parts-per-trillion (ppt) amounts, especially by academia. When their presence in finished water supplies is revealed to the press, the negative attention they gain from the public can catch utilities off-guard, harming their credibility on safety.
In 2016, a study conducted by a North Carolina State team of researchers found multiple PFASs in significant ppt levels in the raw and finished water of the Cape Fear, North Carolina Region’s largest utility. When the study was released, it didn’t draw attention, even from environmental activists. The utility chose the normally proper path; it followed the regulatory process and did not announce the results on its own.
Six months later, however, the study was sent to the region’s leading newspaper and everything changed. The findings grabbed their attention, especially when it came to one EC called GenX. Not only did it have a simple, catchy name, GenX was marketed by a chemical company as a “safe” derivative of C8, a PFC found to cause cancer to such a degree, it resulted in a $670 million legal settlement in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The newspaper contacted the utility to say it had the story. Despite having more than three weeks between the newspaper’s first inquiry and the story’s publication, the utility did not reverse its decision to stay completely silent about the results, even internally. Top management decided not to tell its board, local elected officials, other affected utilities in the area, or its customer service staff.
When the story hit, it shocked the public, the utility’s employees, and its key stakeholders. The 90-point headline? “Toxin Taints CFPUA Drinking Water”. Because the utility stayed silent, it was immediately viewed as taking part in a cover-up. The lack of in-house preparation left customers unable to get answers to basic questions from call agents or the utility’s website. Frustration was aired by elected officials, who felt blindsided, and by the media, whose calls were ignored. Online anger was extreme and public confidence fell fast.
WaterPIO has served as a resource for the press and the public since before the GenX findings were reported; utility employees contacted us for guidance when the newspaper told them they had the story. We appeared on television and talk radio dozens of times to initially calm public concerns then explain the regulatory process when it was discovered that Chemours had dumped the chemicals for 37 years.
Since that first stage of media madness, we have served as an independent source of information, helping multiple utilities, elected officials, activists, reporters, editors, and customers in paid and unpaid capacities. We have presented or will present on the topic at more than a half-dozen state and national conferences in 2017 and 2018.
We have continued to land several opinion pieces and editorials to positively represent our clients and their points of view. We also appear at public forums to explain testing results and legal actions, and we have an open dialogue with area and national activists to make sure the public's concerns are always addressed.
Communicating During a Crisis: Lessons Learned from the Lower Cape Fear Raw Water Main Break
During the early morning hours of October 13, 2016, a Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority 48” raw water main broke near Riegelwood, North Carolina. The line supplies more than 20 million gallons every day to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, Brunswick County Public Utilities, and Pender County Utilities. More than 12.5 million gallons of daily supply were being lost in a location made difficult to work in by flooding, trees, poor soil conditions, and a high groundwater table.
Because of the severity of the situation, all of the affected utilities came together and immediately mobilized to protect their remaining water supply and to plan for the days ahead. A series of emergency response plans were instituted to handle the repair and inform the public.
Over the course of the next three weeks, with now-WaterPIO staff serving as the Unified PIO under the National Incident Management System, a cooperative communications game plan was put into effect to proactively push out information while reacting to rising customer concerns. The goal: to properly inform the approximately 300,000 people served by the three systems on a consistent basis while rapidly responding to online rumors and public complaints that could cause confusion.
Multiple communications tools used to clearly and concisely inform the public. Social media played a particularly important role in helping the Unified PIO quickly respond to questions, concerns, and customer anger popping up throughout all of the service areas. If left unanswered, the public pushback could have undermined the entire repair process.
News releases, interviews, photos, videos, posts, threads, and feeds were used to inform the public at all hours of the day and night, even with limited staff. These channels also proved to be essential in keeping the media actively engaged AND away from the work scene at the same time.
At the same time, the public received information in one of more ways that they prefer, increasing its impact.
WaterPIO staff served as the Unified PIO during the entire break repair. The communications effort successfully evolved as events changed and covered significant ground while ensuring that easy-to-make missteps did not occur. The communications operation successfully covered overall messaging goals while meeting the different needs of the various utilities involved.
Because of the greater transparency and information flow, the entire utility community earned overwhelmingly positive reviews for their levels of emergency response and customer care.
“More with Less”: How to Use Today’s Media Landscape to Improve Ratepayer Relationships
“You need do more with less.” It’s a statement commonly heard today throughout the water industry. Another field has been forced to work with this reality: journalism. Ten of thousands of jobs have disappeared in recent years.
While media operations are contracting, their need for content has exponentially grown. This landscape creates opportunities for water utilities to improve their connections with their customers by proactively pushing out positive information to the press. J.D. Power confirmed this through the results of their 2017 Water Customer Satisfaction Survey. 40,000 ratepayers from 87 utilities gave their services 20% higher ratings when they recalled one proactive communication in the last three months. When customers remembered six communications within a year, their utilities received 30% higher customer ratings.
Since it opened its doors in 2008, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) had a horrific relationship with the press and the public. The utility rarely responded to media inquiries, leaving reporters to run free with every loss-of-service incident or billing error. The impact of the relentlessly negative coverage and online postings became obvious when its board chairman lost his re-election campaign.
In 2012, now-WaterPIO staff was brought in to fix the problem through immediate media and public outreach. Difficult meetings were held to allow for the airing of grievances. When complicated matters arose, on- and off-the-record briefings were put together to increase understanding. It was also made known that CFPUA would help at a moment’s notice on ANY story or customer request. As a result, the press even began turning to the utility for stories when they needed to feed their beasts.
We took advantage of the situation by producing a steady stream of positive stories that were easy for local press to both cover and post online. Topics included the utility’s important role in the community; its success with rebuilding aging infrastructure; and how customers could save money. Positive news was then placed in prime locations on the utility’s website for easy review.
The approach paid both immediate and long-term dividends. Positive coverage was immediately received as the rapport with reporters instantly improved. Online anger was greatly reduced. Work then began to roll out major initiatives, including the announcement of a consent decree. As a result of the higher level of transparency, when the utility absolutely had to have coverage in times of emergency, the media stepped up to the plate and assisted CFPUA.
The relationship rebuild healed the utility’s overall reputation and credibility, resulting in coverage that became nearly 100% positive within two years. Multiple front-page stories and editorials touted CFPUA’s level of service and the organization no longer needed to be fearful about the press and the public.
The impact of the proactive approach was fully realized when CFPUA conducted its own customer survey in 2015. It showed the highest levels of satisfaction with the utility’s services in its history. Finally, when CFPUA’s Board Chair ran for higher office for the first time in 2016, she won. She even credited CFPUA’s renewed reputation as a core reason for her electoral success.