• Mel Butcher

Six Lessons in Public Outreach: How Social Media Can Change Public Perception of a Utility

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

I wrote this in 2014 and it was published in WEF's WE&T magazine. I'm sharing it here now because I think the topic is still relevant for utilities/municipalities, but I also want to point out - I was still a student when I wrote this. You don't need to be an expert. You can use your curiosity, make connections, and in the process of learning, make something to share your new knowledge/insights. My process for getting published was pitch the idea to the editor, and then interview multiple different municipal contacts for the information needed to make an informative article. Feel welcome to reach out if you have any questions.

Have you ever felt like local citizens don't understand your treatment facility? Have you ever thought that if the public knew how hard you and your crew worked, they would be a lot more appreciative of the advance wastewater and water treatment processes in place that keep their lives flowing?

As technology progresses, municipalities must update methods for reaching out to the public. Social media can be an effective tool for meeting customers where they are, and it can serve as an important way to educate customers on important water issues at hand and foster citizen buy-in for large public works projects.

Is it really necessary to use social media?

Whether or not you actively engage in social media, users will be talking about your utility. As soon as a construction project gets in someone's way, customers will be tweeting and posting their complaints on Facebook. Wouldn't it be better if your utility was there to provide accurate information and bring clarity to confusing subjects?

What is social media good for?

The strategic use of social media and can educate the public about what your utility does day-to-day, keep the media and customers up-to-date on interesting projects, and provide an ideal means to broadcast emergency information. Community events such as facility tours, open houses, and other local government initiatives, can be promoted easily through social media. There's a tool out there that can help you involve your customers and help them learn about the important services your utility provides.

The following six key lessons outline how utilities can use social media effectively.

1. Choose the message

The water sector is a dynamic field full of very interesting projects. However, to capture the attention of a general public audience, news about permitting or technical topics might not be the best information to publicize. It's important to be creative and fun to catch your reader's eye, or to otherwise make your message relevant to the audience you're trying to reach.

It is vital to brainstorm and decide your utility's message. Travis Thompson, senior media coordinator at Denver Water (Denver), shared an example of learning how to communicate a specific message. During 2012 and 2013, when Colorado was experiencing a sever drought, water utilities needed to spread the word about water conservation. They carried out a strategic "Use Only What You Need" campaign to educate their citizens about the seriousness of the drought and how they could implement mitigating water conservation techniques. As drought conditions worsened, the campaign slogan morphed into "Use Even Less." The circumstances drove their primary messages. The signs show examples of the program materials. Whatever your primary message is, be sure you and your team have clarified it before beginning your social media campaign

2. Make a plan

A utility's outreach plan should include such details as who is responsible for specific action items, monitoring and answering inquiries, creating regular and thoughtful messages to share, and so on. Whatever outlet or media you use, ensure someone is responding to inquiries quickly. Utilities interviewed for this article agreed unanimously that their online interactions were overwhelmingly positive. When the occasional negative individual spoke up, handling comments or questions quickly and professionally was best achieved by requesting the person call or engage with the utility via email, rather than hashing out a disagreement for all to see online.

There also should be a chain of command in the special case of emergencies. Several utilities interviewed recommended having one person in charge of handling communication of updates and answering social media queries during emergency situations. Plan this so that you are not caught off guard.

3. Start small

You don't need to use every single social media platform to be successful. Knowing the main messages and the audience(s) you want to target can guide your platform decision. Get a handle (no pun intended) on using and interacting with customers through one medium rather than trying to use every platform from the very beginning. It is better to communicate exceptionally with your audience through one outlet than missing important questions and teaching opportunities on multiple outlets due to being stretched too thin.

4. Use humor

Several utilities have mastered this. Lily Madjus, communications manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC; San Francisco), described the commission's unique and amusing communications efforts to aid raising public awareness of a 20-year, multibillion-dollar infrastructure improvement program.

"For us to talk about improvements, we had to first raise awareness as to what the system actually does," Madjus said. While this campaign was heavy on bus ads - sewer system graphic statements such as "Your #2 is my #1" and "No one deals with more crap than I do" - it attracted much attention online. This campaign highlighted how utilities' messages can be funny and thought provoking.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD; Cleveland) ran a hilarious campaign that went viral on Twitter. The image below shows an example of a campaign sign intended for a bathroom (see more by searching keyword #WaitToTweet on Twitter). This is a fantastic example of how to use humor to get the public thinking about where their wastewater goes and to give them a chuckle. It was so well received that NEORSD expanded this set of infographics to the toilet stalls at the Cleveland Indians' baseball stadium.

5. Your utility is in the media whether you are present or not

When something goes wrong, your utility will end up in the media - even if you're not there to speak on its behalf. Kelley Dearing-Smith, director of media marketing at Louisville Water (Louisville, Ky.), shared a great example.

Initially when the utility started using Facebook, they didn't have many followers. However, in 2011 they sustained a catastrophic main break on the University of Louisville campus. While Louisville Water had a Facebook profile, it was not maintained regularly nor used for emergency communications at that time. Given that this incident was on a college campus, they received a sharp increase in followers, along with an immediate backlash for not better communicating through social media what was going on. Smith explained that the experience catalyzed integrating social media with emergency communications and Louisville Water now has robust social media outreach during both emergency and non-emergency times.

This highlights the importance of open, up-to-date communication during emergencies. Louisville Water explained that water and wastewater are often "forgotten" utilities because the public rarely experiences an outage. It's important to find your utility's voice to engage the public. Recognize that as soon as a problem happens, social media will be one of the first places citizens and media professionals turn for answers.

6. Think mobile

Today, consumers often are turning to their mobile devices to view websites and social media, In 2013, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported that two-thirds of Americans go online with mobile devices, with 21% doing so primarily. That was double the percentage reported for 2009. Remember this when creating content for social media - mobile content should be short, easy to view, and designed with small screens in mind. Most tools will adjust content for you, but it's a good idea to preview your posts on a mobile device to see if it looks correct.

I'm convinced! Now, what are my options?

Your options are many and varied. Each platform has benefits and drawbacks, but there's a good chance one will be right for you. [To have a look at the original table of Social Media platforms outlined for this article, you'll need to log into your WEF account and access WE&T magazine here.]

Building followers and letting the community do some of the work

One great way to build followers is to host a contest. John Gonzalez, senior communications specialist at NEORSD, explained that the district was able to increase its following significantly by working with a local aquarium. As strategic education partners, NEORSD offered social media users a set of free tickets to the aquarium; the winner was drawn randomly from users who "liked" the NEORSD Facebook page.

Another way to facilitate interest is to generate buzz for a video contest. For example, you could choose to accept submissions via YouTube or [TikTok], selecting a contest theme that aligns with your utility's educational goals. Be the Street, an organization committed to Earth-Day like values, executed an extremely successful video campaign. Users were vested in promoting the content because they wanted the video they created to win. You can view some of the submissions here.

When putting your utility out in the social media world, be prepared to toot your own horn and to show support for other utilities that are active online. It's a great idea to follow other utilities around the country to see their creativity in educating the public. It's also a good idea to "like" and otherwise promote their materials. These utilities generally will show the same support in return.

Thompson from Denver Water shared a story about how a citizen tweeted about a construction project that they thought belonged to Denver Water. The construction actually was being completed for a different public works agency. Denver Water replied to the user, informed him what the project was, and notified the other entity so that they could join the conversation. Ultimately, this resulted in more collaboration online, including authoring a guest post on the other utility's blog.

With an amusing, eye-catching campaign, many users will begin spreading the word on your behalf by "liking" or reposting the content your utility creates. After you have a loyal following, particularly on a platform such as Facebook, your loyal supporters even may begin to answer other customers' questions for you.

Is social media advertising expensive?

The utilities mentioned in this article spend no more than several hundred dollars per year on social media utility promotions. Louisville Water encourages utilities to make the investment because it goes a lot further and lasts a lot longer compared to a "one hit wonder," such as a one-time ad run in a local newspaper, Kelley said.

Finally, remember that social media is more than just an emergency communications channel. Users should be ready and prepared to engage with the public and monitor the Web for mentions. Moreover, many free resources exist online to help with using particular social media outlets. Don't be afraid to search for answers.

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