Whenever a water utility introduces a change in rates or rate structure, that change must be communicated to the community. Reactions to water rate increases can range from indifference to minor opposition to full-on political backlash. To minimize the potential for negative reactions, it’s important that communications include a complete and transparent picture of what’s happening, why it’s happening, what the impact will be, and who will be affected. But your messages must also accomplish all that in a way that will resonate with your community’s values and attitudes toward water and water services.
Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? It’s actually easier than it sounds but it does require a solid communications plan and that takes time and effort. A good communications plan is one that takes a strategic approach to notifying ratepayers of new water rates, the rationale behind the new rates, and the implications of the change. I’ve prepared many such plans for communities across North America and below is a basic, three-step outline of how you can do the same for yourself.
We’ll be publishing a more detailed guide to creating a communications plan, including worksheets and templates, shortly so stay tuned. Check the Waterworth website for updates.
1. Know Your Audience:
Every writer, from the lowliest copywriter to a bestselling novelist, will tell you that the key to success is knowing your audience. Understanding who it is you’re writing for allows you to target your messaging to resonate with the things they find most important. In order to do that, you’ll need to do a bit of research.
Explore prevailing community attitudes toward paying for water service, for sure, but also look at things like the importance of water (to quality of life, to economic growth, etc.) and knowledge of infrastructure (its age, cost to maintain and replace, etc.). Look for information at the regional, national, and most importantly, the local level. For example, you might start by searching for recent stories about water in the local newspaper.
Next, identify the important stakeholder groups in your community and the things that interest them most. Look at ratepayers, of course, but also elected officials and municipal staff, business associations and chambers of commerce, and other governments (county, regional district, state, province, etc.).
High-level stakeholder interests typically fall into five categories: Economy, Environmental Integrity, Equity, Human Health, and Responsible Government. Identify which categories each of your stakeholder groups care most about.
Based on your community’s attitudes and your stakeholders’ interests, you can make inferences about possible negative reactions to your rate changes. Develop a few hypothetical situations around those reactions and estimate both the likelihood and the severity of the consequences for each. This will allow you to anticipate the risks associated with each possible reaction, so you can craft your messages to preempt those situations.
2. Formulate Key Messages:
Key messages are the integral points everyone needs to know about the pending changes and the reasons for them. Three to five main messages are usually enough. They are formulated to proactively respond to the questions and concerns of audiences within your community — your previously-identified stakeholder groups, their attitudes and interests, and their possible negative reactions. Key messages should be specific enough to address stakeholder concerns but general enough to be easily understood.
Supporting messages are secondary ideas that reinforce each key message. They may provide additional details, an alternative perspective, or offer rationale. They are particularly useful when conveying complex ideas and arguments.
Proofs provide evidence to back up your key and supporting messages. They can include research findings, facts, statistics, illustrations, graphs, endorsements, quotes from trusted sources, etc. Proofs help lend credibility to your key messages.
Below is an example of a key message, with a few supporting messages and proofs.
The new water rates ensure that [TOWN] can provide continuous services and safe water, today and into the future.
Water underpins the health and economy of our community. Investing in water services is an investment in our own well-being and prosperity.
Putting money aside to pay for the upkeep of our water systems means fewer service disruptions and fewer unexpected expenses in the future.
We need to pay our portion of the services that underpin our community and avoid passing on financial burdens to future generations.
We provide safe and reliable water services to [SERVICE POPULATION] people through [X] domestic connections. This is expected to grow in the coming years.
Residential demand (houses, duplexes, and strata) accounts for about [X]% of all customer water use in [TOWN].
Water conservation and resource management is a major priority for the entire region due to population growth and concerns about the potential impact of climate change on supply.
3. Develop and Implement Your Strategy:
The first step in developing an implementation strategy is choosing which channels will work best for disseminating your messages. Channels are the methods by which messages are distributed to the community, such as traditional media, online tools, spokespeople, internal staff, and marketing collateral. Evaluate commonly used channels based on reach, frequency, cost, profile, detail, and customizability.
Plan for both proactive and reactive communications and choose channels for each accordingly. Proactive communications attempt to anticipate and pre-empt questions and concerns in order to avoid negative reactions and opposition. Reactive communications are deployed in response to negative reactions, should they occur. If your proactive communications are done well, there may be no need for reactive messages but prepare them anyway, just in case.
Next, prepare your collateral. For example, you might prepare copy, design, and logistics for such things as website/blog content and FAQs, letters to residents or bill inserts, a mayor’s letter or op-ed, and a press release.
Once you’ve received approvals for your collateral, you’ll need a schedule for getting the messages out. You’ll need to schedule the posting of website/blog content and FAQs, the sending of mail-outs/bill inserts, and the issuing of press releases and op-eds.
Finally, you’ll need a plan for monitoring reactions and responses to your communications. Based on community response, you can fine-tune messaging and, if necessary, deploy reactive messages.
When all is said and done, you should evaluate the effectiveness of your communications plan and report on the results. It’s also important to remember to apply what you’ve learned to future campaigns, so you can improve on what went well and avoid repeating any missteps.
If you plan your communications carefully and execute that plan strategically, experience has taught me that positive results are much more likely. Negative reactions and opposition can be avoided and in their place, you’ll find deeper community understanding and broader acceptance of rate changes.
Don’t forget to stay tuned for our upcoming step-by-step guide to communications planning for water utilities, complete with worksheets and templates. Details to be posted on the Waterworth website soon!