Most people know water utilities are responsible for treating water and ensuring it is safe to drink for their customers. However, one responsibility of water utilities is not talked about nearly enough – their need to communicate with their customers and the public.
At the Kentucky Rural Water Association’s Utility Management Institute, water professionals from rural communities across Kentucky traveled to Louisville Water Company in September to learn about ways to communicate with their customers and stakeholders from communications and public relations experts.
Attendees were able to discuss communications strategies and other relevant topics with their counterparts from across the Commonwealth.
“Being involved in rural water, it’s great to network and learn about what everyone else is doing,” conference attendee Justin Lane said.
Lane also mentioned how vital it is to be visible and outward facing as a water utility in small, rural areas.
“Communicating with your customers is very important. In small communities, it’s all about a personal touch,” Lane said. “Bringing legislators, elected officials, superintendents, and stakeholders of any kind to see what you’re doing in your facilities – there’s a lot of value in that.”
Attendees heard from Channa Newman, the Education and Outreach Manager for Louisville Water. During her presentations, Newman spoke often about the importance of prioritizing proactive communication. Newman said it’s crucial for customers and stakeholders to trust what they hear from their water utility at all times, but especially during times of crisis. To do that, Newman suggested that attendees use low-cost strategies to reach their customers in a positive, proactive way.
Newman said one unique low-cost tactic Louisville Water uses that has paid long-term dividends is its cooler loan program, which allows community members to borrow Louisville Water-branded coolers free of charge. She said that the program has not only highlighted Louisville Water’s role as an excellent community partner, but has also improved brand awareness.
Several attendees at the conference said they have a strong community presence in their cities and host an event each year called “Touch a Truck,” where they allow kids to explore a utility truck and provide stickers, books, games, and more. Other utilities said they often hold events with trusted community groups, such as their local chambers of commerce and rotary clubs, to provide updates on their work.
Other speakers discussed topics such as media relations and government relations. Vince Guenthner, a Senior Utilities Consultant for Louisville Water, focused on how to effectively communicate with stakeholders for public projects.
“Water infrastructure improvements can cause inconvenience for customers and can be disruptive to neighborhoods. Making sure customers and key stakeholders are informed on the need for the project and provided timely updates on progress can ease concerns,” Guenthner said. “It’s been my experience that if customers know the reason for a project, they are sympathetic and understand the need for temporary inconveniences. Of course, the reverse is true. That is why it is so important to maintain good communications and outreach.”
Overall, attendees came away with new tools to bring back to their communities so that they can better communicate with their customers.