How to communicate the value of water and engage the public

Public outreach is critical for water utilities when they need to raise awareness about water issues, inform consumers about rate changes, and get feedback from stakeholders. The resources listed here include several examples and guides for successful community engagement. You’ll find a new social media guide, new books, and ads that are ready to download.

New social media guide for water utilities

Social Media for Water Utilities

The Water Research Foundation (WRF) has just released a new guide and materials to help water and wastewater utilities use social media to engage with customers. Case studies of eight utilities show that they have successfully used social media for crisis communications, to promote rebate programs, to crowdsource field reports, and to make the case for overdue rate increases and infrastructure investments.

Despite the success of these utilities, WRF research found that while 65 percent of major metro utilities were using social media, only 45 percent of mid-sized utilities and less than a third of small utilities had any public social media presence. The new materials include case studies, benchmarking results and tips about how to get started. Access to all of the materials is limited to members, but the Executive Briefing includes the highlights. A webcast on the research findings is also available here.

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Campaigns that communicate the value of water

Communicating the Value of Drinking Water Services: Using Campaigns and Community Engagement Efforts

The EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water hosted five webinar discussions to share how water systems have communicated the value of drinking water services to their customers. Speakers included representatives from small, medium and large water systems, state and federal agencies and water sector organizations. This report summarizes the webinar series, shows examples of campaigns, and lists steps water utilities can follow to define and communicate messages.

Value of Water Campaign’s communications toolkit

The Value of Water Coalition created this toolkit to help water utilities educate local decision-makers, stakeholders, and customers about the value of water. These materials are free resources that can be downloaded and used as is, or utilities can add their own logo or website to show the connection to water in their area. The materials include full and half-page ads, a message deck for presentations, bill stuffers, banners and social media posts.

Public communication toolkits and guides

Water Utility Public Awareness Kit

This ready-made campaign from the US Environmental Protection Agency aims to help water utilities inform customers and the community about threats to water systems, and motivate them to take action. The campaign includes an infographic, mailers, brochures and a video that utilities can post on their websites.

AWWA’s Public Communications Toolkit

The American Water Works Association has several articles, guides and resources online to help water utilities communicate with customers and the public. These include materials for strategic planning, tips on press conferences, an event planning guide and children’s activities.

Developing a Water Conservation Public Awareness Program: A Guide for Utilities

This guide, developed in 2010 by the Texas Water Development Board, aims to help water utilities develop an outreach plan on water conservation. It includes general tips about how to set goals, how to create material for different channels, and how to track your media coverage.

Emotional connections as a strategy?

Forging Powerful and Sustainable Relationships Between Clean Water Agencies and the Community
In 2017, The Water Research Foundation (WRF) announced a new project aimed at exploring how some utilities and companies use emotional motivators in public engagement programs to develop relationships with their customers. The project, outlined in this proposal, aims to incorporate lessons learned from outside the water industry about customers’ emotional connections to products and services. Though the WRF project is not yet complete, it references these articles in the Harvard Business Review, which may be of interest to utilities: “The New Science of Customer Emotions” and “An Emotional Connection Matters More than Customer Satisfaction”.

Measuring the results of outreach campaigns

Community engagement in the water sector: An outcome-focused review of different engagement approaches

Published by the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities in 2016, this report examines several community engagement campaigns and how they changed public behavior or opinions. The report identifies three main types of community engagement initiatives: providing input, seeking input, and building active and connected communities. It concludes that the initiatives studied were generally successful at increasing knowledge and improving attitudes to more sustainable water practices and policies.

Evaluation of the Role of Public Outreach and Stakeholder Engagement in Stormwater Funding Decisions in New England: Lessons from Communities

This report, published by the US EPA in 2013, presents case studies from 11 communities on how public outreach affected the funding of stormwater management. The report finds that communities that effectively addressed their stakeholders’ specific concerns were more likely to implement their proposed funding. Success required ways to educate stakeholders about the need for funding as well as ways for stakeholders to educate utilities about their concerns.

Water rate increases and water planning

Water Rates: Communication and Education

This 2013 report from the Pacific Institute looks at strategies that water utilities can use to ensure that necessary rate changes are implemented, while still ensuring customer satisfaction. These include sending transparent water bills that state clear charges for different services, communicating with online tools and bill calculators, and educational materials about what water bills pay for.

How to frame your message for successful water rates increases

This article presents the findings of a 2016 study by Hahn Public on how to convince consumers about rate increases. It argues that utilities must identify the messages that opponents use and then develop facts to disclaim them. Messages based on facts about the water issues, or about consumer benefits, are more likely to persuade than comparisons to other utilities or explanations of how the funds will benefit non-utility services.

Public Outreach, Education and Engagement for State Water Planning

In order to update the Montana State Water Plan in 2015, a survey was conducted to identify best practices in helping the public understand the importance of water planning and how to best involve them in the process. This report includes public outreach lessons from 17 western states in the US, including: be transparent, use partnerships to help send the message, and use neutral facilitators at meetings to build trust.

Books on how to communicate about water issues

Communicating Water’s Value: Talking Points, Tips & Strategies

By Melanie K. Goetz, 2014.
Published by the American Water Works Association, this book offers tips and tools to assist water utilities with helping customers understand the value of water. The tactics outlined can be used when advocating for rate hikes, or when conservation measures are needed. It includes insights on consumer behavior and examples from utilities and corporations.

Reconnecting People and Water: Public Engagement and Sustainable Urban Water Management

By Liz Sharp, 2017
In this new book, Liz Sharp argues that water utilities cannot rely only on technical fixes to water management problems. She takes a historical and social scientific approach to show that public engagement will be essential to solve the water-related issues related to climate change, urbanization, changing environmental standards and fiscal accountability.

Water Communication: Analysis of Strategies and Campaigns from the Water Sector

Edited by Celine Herve-Bazin, 2014
This book examines the emerging field of water communication and how water issues are communicated on a global, national and local level. It provides an overview of the history of water communication, explores different types and goals of water communication, and evaluates examples of communication campaigns.

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