[QTalks Ep.15]

When it comes to building long-term trust among communities and customers, how can the water industry foster positive communication? Are communication campaigns and public outreach initiatives needed to bridge the gap between water providers and the communities they serve? 

Off the back of releasing a whitepaper on “Communications & Water management — how utilities can communicate better”, our panel of comms experts joined QTalks host Tom Freyberg to discuss how to build long-term trust among communities and customers. They are:

Full episode available below.

Challenging the status quo

Tom kicked off the discussion by asking Stephanie to contextualize the current ways that utilities communicate with their audiences and customers and her role in helping to challenge the status quo.

Stephanie pointed out that a prevailing pattern in utilities’ communication is that it’s primarily transactional and typically limited to reaching out when something goes wrong. Her role is to cultivate trust and build strong relationships, including utilizing the power of storytelling, being mindful of how messages are communicated, and being diligent about knowing the target audience.

She emphasized the importance of sharing information about utilities, their mission, values, and their role in the community role since this also builds a stronger foundation for when issues arise.

Tom moved on to asking John about what the state of external communications looked like when he joined the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and about John’s innovative approach to driving a creative transformation.

Over his 20-year tenure, John said that he witnessed significant changes in the organization, particularly in the past decade, and that a key driver for this transformation was the need to rebuild trust. Recognizing the value of transparency and accessibility, the organization turned to social media as a powerful platform to engage customers and address their concerns.

John said the utility tapped into existing customer discussions on social media platforms and addressed their questions and misconceptions. Leveraging social media empowered them to engage in real-time and to go beyond the limitations of core business hours and event-focused interactions with their audience.

Crucially, John said that what sets them apart from other utilities is their emphasis on “human” exchanges with their audience which helps them acknowledge the utility’s genuine commitment to serving them in a helpful and meaningful way.

How to rebuild trust within communities

Tom turned the discussion to Paul and asked him to talk about his experiences in rebuilding trust through powerful communication. 

Paul highlighted a successful example of effective and positive communication in Grangemouth, Scotland. When faced with community resistance and protests against building a waste-to-energy plant in the area, they adopted a two-stage communication approach. They began by engaging the wider community and emphasizing the benefits and job security the plant would bring — a topic they identified as being incredibly important to the local community. 

Secondly, they communicated the specific details of the project. To ensure successful communication, they took the conversation beyond immediate stakeholders, enlisted the support of a local company, and utilized community nodes (including pubs, stores, and hairdressers) as communication hubs. John emphasized the significance of employing non-promotional, information-based communication to build trust before discussing the project specifics. 

Finally, after following this approach for six months, John said that they were able to successfully establish trust, gain community support, and form a community council to oversee the project’s development.

Creative storytelling as a means of building trust

Tom then asked Stephanie to explain the importance of the role of storytelling when trying to convince utilities to go beyond transactional communication with customers. 

Stephanie said that utilities need to balance facts and figures with the emotional components of the issues at hand. She said that this enables them to build a story narrative that often centers the utility as a “guide” — rather than a hero — that will help their community and customers to embrace the quality of life they desire for their families and loved ones. 

Turning back to John, Tom asked him to elaborate on the strategy and creative process behind Northeast Ohio’s social media communications plan. 

John said that they recognized the importance of shifting language and tone when communicating with customers online, and they began to speak on social media in a more conversational way.

He said that they were also able to successfully apply the humor that had worked in their in-person outreach to their social media platforms, finding that it helped build trust and establish a connection with their audience and build trust.

Internal trust is just as important as external trust

Tom then asked the panel about the processes within their organizations and noted that it can often be challenging to get social media messaging signed off by leadership. 

John emphasized the importance of fostering internal trust with leadership and other stakeholders as a means to maintain the creativity of communications and steer them away from a corporate tone. He said that this trust enables them to respond to trends and conversations in real time, helping them to preserve their “persona”.

Social media’s impact on positive communication

Rounding off the discussion, Tom asked the panel to discuss how social media can be used to foster positive communication with audiences. 

Paul mentioned that his work focuses on trying to establish a strong community relationship before they initiate any social media activity. He said that this helps to prevent the spread of misinformation, particularly in cases where the topics are highly emotive.

Stephanie ended by saying that utilities shouldn’t just use social media platforms as an extension of their website, but to emphasize their personality, missions, and values.

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