1.8: Public Relations
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Student Learning Outcomes
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
- Explain the importance of public relations as it pertains to public perception
- Identify the key areas where communicating to the public is important
- List four (4) main areas the public experiences a water utility and their workers
Many times, public relations are looked at as a marketing strategy for businesses selling a product, or, perhaps a government agency disseminating information to a certain constituency or group of voters. Public relations (PR) is nothing more than the spread of information between an individual or an organization to the public. Therefore, PR is just as important for a water utility.
Even though customers do not have a choice who they receive their drinking water from, it is important for a water utility to be open, transparent, and helpful to their customers. Therefore, providing good public relations is important.
A water utility is in the public eye in a variety of ways. Utility vehicles are driving throughout a town performing work. Meter readers often visit customer homes to read a water meter. Every time someone turns on their faucet and the water coming out is unacceptable or when someone receives a high water bill, the water utility is often the one a customer will blame.
Some areas water utility workers are exposed to the general public include, but are not limited to meter reading, operations and maintenance workers, vehicle operation, public meetings, and customer calls and complaints. These are not the only instances where customers can and interact with water utility workers.
Meter readers have the potential of interacting with customers on a routine basis. Meters are generally located near the property boundary of customers and in some parts of the United States; they can be installed inside customer buildings. Therefore, a customer might approach an employee reading meters. Customers can be in search of specific information about the service they are receiving or perhaps they might have questions about something they heard about in the news. Regardless of what a customer might be asking, it is important for meter readers to be respectful and polite.
Meter readers should maintain a neat appearance. Many utilities provide their employees with uniforms, which clearly display the utility’s name. If a meter reader is speaking with a customer they should provide some form of identification letting the customer know who they are and whom they work for. If a customer’s meter is inside a customer’s residence, a customer may be reluctant to allow them into their home without proper identification or someone who is wearing worn-out clothes, dirty, or unshaven. Meter readers should be properly trained and have a good general understanding of utility operations. However, at no time should any employee, including meters, feel responsible to answer any questions they are unfamiliar with. Sometimes meter readers will carry around brochures with frequently asked questions and they should always provide the customer with a phone number to call, in order to receive additional information. While reading meters, a meter reader should also be aware of any abnormalities with the customer’s service. If a leak is detected on the customer’s side of the service, they should attempt to contact the customer. If a customer is not home, often times a water service notice tag is left on the customer’s door. Whenever dealing with the public a meter reader should stay pleasant and polite.
Operations and Maintenance Workers
This group of workers does not typically have direct contact with customers. Therefore, while they should maintain a neat appearance, it is not as important as with meter readers. Sometimes when workers are working in the public right of way (i.e., streets, sidewalks, etc) a local resident may inquire about the work they are doing. While it may seem obvious to the worker, they need to remember most of the time the public is just curious. Therefore, it is important for the worker to be polite and to refrain from “smart aleck” responses. It is oftentimes best for a worker to refer the inquisitive public to the supervisor in charge of the work instead of trying to answer all the questions they might be asked. It is important for the utility to give the public proper notice whenever service is planned to be disrupted or when streets might be closed. This can be accomplished through mailers, calls, or signs placed in the work area. During planned shutdowns for repairs or new installs, door hangers are commonly used to provide the local residents notice.
All work zones should be properly marked and kept safe. Safety cones, tape, and other means can be used to block public access in order to protect public safety. Work zones should also be kept as clean as possible and workers should avoid sitting or walking on private property. Customers generally do not like workers taking their breaks on their lawns. Equipment and vehicles should look clean and professional and tools should not be scattered around the worksite. After the work is complete, the workers need to leave the area in the condition (or better) as they found it.
Water utility workers generally drive a significant amount throughout their day. This increases the potential for accidents and citations. Therefore, it is critical that all utility drivers need to be careful, follow all driving rules, and be extremely cautious of their surroundings. Careless driving also makes people angry. If a utility worker is driving too fast or appears to be driving carelessly, residents often take note and many times will call the utility to complain. This generally leads to a situation where it is the worker’s word versus the resident’s word. Courteous driving leaves a better impression on the public and leads to less potential issues. Utility workers should also use good judgment on where they park their vehicles. It might make a bad impression if someone sees a utility truck parked in front of the local tavern, even if the worker is actually working around the corner.
Water quality throughout the United States is highly regulated and safe to drink. However, that doesn’t mean customers like the taste, smell, and look of their water. Even if the water is considered safe to drink, if it is discolored, has an odor, and tastes odd, customers will complain. A good PR strategy for handling water quality complaints is very important in order for customers to be confident in the water they are being served. Typically, there are water quality professionals employed by a water utility to answer questions related to water quality complaints. They are trained to explain the potential causes of these unpleasant aesthetic qualities, offer suggestions to improve the quality, and offer to sample the water if necessary.
Many times, the aesthetic quality of the water is a result of internal home plumbing problems, such as old galvanized plumbing. However, sometimes water can be discolored in the distribution system from flushing or other flow changes in pipes. Other times a utility might change the disinfection practices for various reasons. This can result in taste and odor issues. If the utility is aware of potential changes in water quality from distribution activities, it is advised the utility notify customers ahead of time in order to prevent a large number of complaints.
In accordance with federal and state drinking water quality regulations, annual reports must be provided to customers stating the quality of water they are being served. These reports are referred to as annual water quality reports or consumer confidence reports. These reports typically list the sources of supply, results from water quality samples collected, and health effects data related to constituents found in the water supply. These reports while regulatory requirements are also public relations materials and it provides utilities another avenue for communicating with their customers.
The staff in customer service departments is the first exposure a customer has with a utility. Customers often call with questions or complaints about their service. Some customers pay their water bills in person. Customer service representatives can experience angry and hostile customers who are unhappy with the service provided by the utility. They may receive calls and complaints about high water bills, poor water quality, low or high water pressure, leaks, and a host of other issues customers might experience. These customer service representatives should be trained to be able to appropriately handle customer complaints and when to escalate complaints to their supervisors.
Customer service representatives should remain calm and polite, even if a customer raises their voice and/or gets angry. This is easier said than done. However, it is important to try and diffuse conflict with customers. If a customer is aggressive with an employee of a utility getting angry will only escalate the problem. Instead, it is recommended to listen, listen, and listen. People taking the time to call a utility and complain, want to be heard. Once you have listened to the customer’s issue, offer to help. Even if there is not much you can do, the simple offer of wanting to help will go a long way.
Customer service representatives need to be provided with the proper tools to be able to adequately address customer concerns. Access to customer account information is important as well as a list of staff that the representative can refer or transfer customers to. For example, if a customer is complaining or has questions about the quality of their water, there should be staff within the organization that are able to answer questions and provide answers to customers. Therefore, properly trained staff is an important aspect of public relations and good customer service.
The general rule most water utility workers should follow when it comes to talking with anyone from the media is, don’t do it. There are too many opportunities for being misquoted and it can be embarrassing to see incorrect information in print, on the radio or television. Water utilities should have a designated media spokesperson to handle all questions and interviews from reporters. However, oftentimes, the front line workers are the first people on the scene and might be approached by reporters. If this happens, workers should give very brief and factual information about what they are doing and that is all. For example, if crews are responding to a water main break that is all the information the workers should offer. They can explain what they are doing and why they are at the location. However, they should avoid speculating as to the cause of the problem or how long they will be at the work location. They should let reporters know they are not qualified to go into more detail and that a supervisor or media representative will arrive on site soon.
Larger organizations can have designated public relations departments and spokespeople, commonly public information officers. In smaller utilities, middle or upper management staff is typically the designated spokesperson. Regardless of the spokesperson they should speak in facts only and never speculate.
It is important for a utility to properly communicate with its customers and the community as a whole. General communication about the service provided by the utility is important to convey to customers. Informing customers about changes in their water rates, conservation information, how to pay or where to pay water bills, or things such as business hours are all important items to communicate. In addition, it is important to properly notify customers and the general public whenever there’s going to be work performed or water outages.
Strategic communication planning is also important. It is important to properly plan and relay information about changes in regulations, which can affect customers, changes in water quality or service reliability, and meet the public’s expectations. There are four steps to successful communication planning. These include understanding the message, identifying the audience who will receive the communication, deciding on the type of communication, and the strategic planning of the dissemination of the communication.
It is important to establish a good working relationship with the local media. Working directly with reporters and writers for local newspapers and news media who typically write and report on environmental and utility-related issues is suggested. Working with the local media provides a means to open and honest dialog and the ability to help frame the stories they cover.
Public relations representatives should be accessible for comments regardless if the story is positive or negative. Access to subject matter experts should also be provided. Many times a story is about a topic involving issues of a complex nature. The subject matter experts should be available for interviews. However, they should also be able to explain complex subject matter in non-technical and understandable terms.
Public Media Events
Often times a utility will host a variety of public events. These events should be designed to provide valuable information and educate the participants about the event. These events can be joint events with other local agencies and organizations. They are typically intended to create public involvement and participation.
It is important to properly advertise the events and host in a location with ample space. All public events should be held in locations convenient to the public, have plenty of parking, and access to restrooms. A public event is designed to create a positive and informative perception of the local community.
While it is not necessary, utilities often have free items to hand out to the visiting public. If the event is a water conservation event, the utility may offer free low flow showerheads or other water-saving devices. If the event is about drinking water quality, free sample water testing kits are sometimes offered. Regardless of the event, free “trinkets” with the utilities logo or name are good ways to publicize the agency.
No one looks forward to a crisis or emergency. However, all water utilities should be prepared to properly respond to and notify their customers in the case of one of these events. An emergency can be associated with a large water main break where traffic is disrupted and water service is lost to several customers to a major catastrophe where water service is lost to thousands of customers. Regardless of the extent of the emergency, the utility needs to be properly prepared.
In addition to operational planning of how a utility will respond to water quality and operational issues, a utility needs to have proper public relations planning and preparation. Some media notifications are required by regulations. For example, if a utility has a Tier 1 water quality violation, they must notify all of their customer within twenty-four (24) hours. In these situations, it is important not to waste any time. Therefore, it is important for the public relations team to prepare ahead of time. In these situations, if the utility has developed a good working relationship with the media, disseminating information is easier. It is important to know all the media outlets in the utilities service area, including but not limited to newspapers, radio stations, and television stations.
When possible, interviews should be conducted with public relations personnel or by knowledgeable staff. There are things you definitely don’t want to say during an interview and there are strategies for giving a successful interview.
One common mistake by interviewees is not listening to the interviewer’s question. You should always take your time before answering a question and listen carefully to what is being asked. If the interview is live radio or television, be sure to speak clearly and try to avoid using acronyms and too technical details. An interviewee should always assume they are providing information to an uninformed audience. Keeping things to basic grade level responses can be effective. Always look at the person (reporter) interviewing you and try and not look at the camera.
Whether in print, audio, or visual media, the interviewee should try and disseminate information that is factual and stands on its own merit. Sometimes interviewers paraphrase information and you want to avoid any misinterpretation. In any print media, in-depth detailed information is generally acceptable. The reader has the opportunity to reread statements if they do not understand something. However, it is still important to provide facts and not opinions.
- Which one of the following is not an example where utility workers are exposed to the public?
- Meter reading
- Public Meetings
- Vehicle Operation
- What would be a common mistake in a public relations interview?
- Not listening to the interviewer's question
- Answering a question specifically
- Looking at the person conducting the interview
- Disseminate factual information
- In larger organizations, it is common to have ___________ act as the organization's public spokesperson.
- Middle Manager
- Public Information Officer
- Customer Service Representative
- Operations and Maintenance workers typically have frequent contact with the public.