Communications Basics for Water Service Providers

In a previous post, we presented 3 Steps to Communicating a Rate Change to Your Customers, a basic outline for creating a communications strategy. And for a more detailed guide to creating a communications plan, including worksheets and templates, see Waterworth’s Communicating Water Rate Changes white paper.

For this post, we decided to take a step back and focus on some basic best practices for creating the effective content that is the backbone of a solid communications plan. The best communications strategy in the world will be for naught if the content itself is poorly executed. Keeping the following in mind will help make sure that doesn’t happen.  

Voice and Tone 

Voice refers to the attitude or position taken in a piece of writing, (e.g., academic, institutional, personal, etc.) The voice of content originating from a government entity will differ quite significantly from the voice of content from a private blogger. Whatever voice you use, it should be consistent across all content, from your website to your bill inserts to your social media posts.  

Tone, on the other hand, refers to the emotional tenor of the writing, e.g. formal, conversational, technical, humorous, etc. Tone should also maintain a certain level of consistency, however, tone can vary depending on audience and circumstances. For instance, a piece of collateral promoting conservation to school children will employ a different tone than one aimed at homeowners facing an increase in water rates.  

The following factors all contribute to establishing a consistent and authentic voice and tone. 

  • Plain language: Effective communication depends on the ease with which it is understood by the audience. That means using simple words and uncomplicated phrasing, for instance using ‘ask’ instead of ‘make a request’ or ‘apply’ instead of ‘submit an application’. It also means avoiding jargon and overly-technical terminology, such as “asbestos-cement pipe” or “debt coverage ratio” both of which will be meaningless to the average customer. If such terms are unavoidable, always include a definition. 
  • Active voice: Writing in the active voice means making it crystal clear who is performing an action. For example, the active voice in the sentence, “Anytown Water Services is increasing residential water rates by 2%,” leaves no doubt about who is raising the rates. Changing the sentence to passive voice makes the who unclear: “residential rates for Anytown Water Services are increasing by 2%.” It might seem like a subtle difference, but that vagueness may be perceived as obfuscation.
  • Positive language: Using positive rather than negative language can make a huge impact on how your message is received. It’s just human nature to prefer hearing, “You are eligible for a partial refund,” than, “You are not eligible for a full refund.” Whenever you find yourself using negative words like don’t, can’t, won’t, no, not, etc., try to find a way to positively rephrase the sentence. But emphasizing the positive goes beyond simple phrasing. Communicating a rate increase necessitated by deteriorating infrastructure can feel like an inherently negative message — “The system is in danger of failing so your bill is going up.” But by looking a little deeper, it’s possible to find positives. Even with higher rates, residents can still control their costs by conserving water. And infrastructure renewal will ensure safe, reliable drinking water now and into the future. 
  • Positive images: Image choices can also impact voice and tone so if you’re aiming to emphasize the positive, your images should be positive as well. It can be tempting to use images of deteriorating infrastructure or polluted waterways to illustrate the negative consequences of failing to address potential problems, but such images can be more than just off-putting. They can trigger an avoidance response in your audience that will prevent them from receiving your message. Instead, use images of pristine infrastructure and clean waterways to illustrate the goals you’re working to achieve.
Social Norming  

Social norming is the process of making the desired behavior the norm by creating the perception that for most people, it already is. For instance, “Your neighbors are already conserving water; what’s stopping you?” So while communicating the value of water conservation is important, for your customers to simply possess that knowledge isn’t enough to change their behavior. Building the concept of social norming into your messaging can provide the additional motivation needed to effect real change.  

Using Humor  

Using humor in your rate change communications might not be the best idea but don’t underestimate the power of humor in other types of messaging, such as conservation campaigns. Humor can be an effective tool for engaging your audience with what otherwise might come across as a boring, ‘preachy’ message. Humor can also reduce the likelihood of people feeling like you’re trying to shame them into changing their behavior. And humor isn’t just for large cities with dedicated marketing budgets either. Even small municipalities can leverage this using low-cost, personable channels like social media or blog posts.  

All the above might seem relatively simple but it’s surprising how impactful each can be when applied to communications content. When taken together, the impact can be profound. Using plain, easily understood language that employs the active voice and positive phrasing will help convey your message clearly and concisely. Throw in a positive image or two and a dash of humorous social norming, and your content will be engaging, informative, and most importantly, effective. 

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