A Front Page Nightmare
It is every water utility manager’s worst nightmare: your town made the front page of the national news because of contaminated drinking water. That’s the situation that Flint, Michigan is in right now. Virtually all of the city’s 100,000 people have been exposed to lead poisoning and other contaminants from corroded distribution pipes.
The water crisis in Flint originated in 2014 when, in an attempt to save money, it made the decision to switch its source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This new water source, while less expensive to procure, was more corrosive to the pipes and leached lead into the distribution system. Now some or all of the distribution system may need to be replaced, which could cost the nearly bankrupt city as much as $1.5 billion.
So what can the situation in Flint teach water utilities about establishing and maintaining trust with their customers, beyond the obvious lessons against shortsightedness and covering up wrongdoing?
Lesson 1: Talk about water quality early and often
Taking responsibility for your mistakes is crisis management 101, and in Flint, while there is plenty of blame to go around few people are stepping up to take responsibility. As a water utility, your work to build trust and credibility in the community is never finished.
One way utilities can build credibility is in how they talk about their water quality. Unfortunately, most utilities under-communicate about water quality. They will do the minimum that is required of them under the law, like publishing an annual water quality report (also known as a consumer confidence report, or CCR) and simply posting it on their website rather than actively distributing it to customers. This is a mistake. These utilities are missing the opportunity to engage on a fundamental question that so many customers have: is my water safe to drink?
Utilities tend to underinvest in communications about water quality because they undervalue the impact of communication on customer satisfaction and willingness to pay for water, and overestimate the impact of quality communication on perceived risk. In a 2004 AWWA survey, 40% of utility staff respondents agreed with the statement that CCRs do more to scare customers than inform them. In reality, only 6% of customers who recalled receiving a CCR reported that it made them feel a little or a lot less confident in their water quality, while 45% of customers said that it made them feel a little or a lot more confident.[i]
Lesson 2: Don’t skimp on data
Perhaps in response to unfounded concerns that water quality communications will confuse and scare customers, some utilities have opted for emphasizing qualitative water quality communication, rather than investing in improved communication of more comprehensive quantitative data. Rather than pleasing customers with their simplicity, such communication approaches actually evoke greater concern about water quality and less satisfaction with the extent of the information provided in water quality reports.[ii] It seems that the display of specific data and numbers builds credibility with customers, who are wary of “thin” reports for not being rigorous, and perhaps coming from the utility’s marketing department as opposed to its water quality department.
Lesson 3: Own the bad news
Similarly, the 2004 AWWA survey found that including language about contaminants of concern in water quality reports was actually positively associated with overall satisfaction with reports. This result is totally counter-intuitive – why would customers be more satisfied with a report that clearly articulated problems? According to AWWA’s analysis of the results, it is evident that discussions of contaminants do not, in general, alarm readers. Instead such detail reassures customers that the reports contain sufficient information to be useful and are not undertaken solely for public relations purposes or simply to meet regulatory requirements. Transparency in water quality communication goes a long way toward building credibility.
The terrible situation in Flint is still unfolding and the City has a long way to go to restore the trust of the community. For a water utility, trust and credibility are critical to its ability to operate and make the case for infrastructure investments needed to keep the water system reliable in the future. Building such trust is accomplished slowly and through active customer engagement and communicating good as well as bad news in a timely, consistent manner. This is particularly true when it comes to information regarding water quality. Consider that the 2004 AWWA study found that households that recalled receiving a water quality report had a 4.0/5.0 utility satisfaction rating while households that did not recall receiving one had a 3.7/5.0 rating. In a separate survey evaluating the impact of hypothetical water quality reports, utility performance evaluation from people receiving a violation report did not vary relative to people receiving a report with no violations.[iii] In other words, there is no penalty for reporting bad news, and in fact, proactive communication is often rewarded in higher customer satisfaction. The lesson from Flint and for all water utilities is that proactive customer communication that promotes transparency about water quality metrics is an important step toward building, and re-establishing, public trust.
[i] Lazo, J. K., Pratt, J. L., Herrick, C. N., Hagenstad, M. L., Raucher, R. S., Hurd, R. E., & Rambo, E. H.
(2004). Understanding and Enhancing the Impact of Consumer Confidence Reports. AWWA Research Foundation.
[ii] Johnson, B. B. (2001). Public reaction to mandated language for US drinking water quality
reports. Risk, 12, 153.
[iii] Johnson, B.B. (2003). Customer reaction to hypothetical and actual CCRs and related information. American Water Works Association Journal. Vol. 95, No. 8. Pp. 90-99.