DeBaker recommends coming up with three or four messages and tailoring them to different audiences. Both the messages and the media chosen to deliver them depend on the audience. “When you get into looking at the different layers of your public, they may have some general commonality, but they also have a lot of unique interests,” Katz said. To be effective, messages should be targeted at a specific audience and delivered in a way that will reach that audience, she added.
“You’re creating that road map,” DeBaker said. “It adds validity to your communications program and builds credibility for your organization.” A communications strategy brings utility employees together and makes messages consistent. “We want to make sure that we’re all speaking the same language and have the answers,” she said.
Keeping an open line of communication with staff on messages and protocol
After a utility has devised a communications strategy, every staff member must know what the messages are and why they are there, because “everyone interacts with different types of audiences,” DeBaker said. This is important to ensure that the utility’s messages are consistent.
CWS sends updates on communications messages, outreach activities, and communications contacts for each project to staff through an electronic newsletter and equips those at the front desk, in customer service, and in the field with briefing papers on 10 common topics encountered, DeBaker said.
Staying up to date with your audience’s preferences
To make sure that CWS is responding correctly to its audience, it relies on surveys. Overall customer awareness and satisfaction surveys are sent to all customers every 2 years, which provides the utility with baseline results that add validity to its communications program, DeBaker said. Smaller surveys and quizzes can be distributed at public events, online, on social media sites, and through the mail.
DeBaker also recommends diversifying outreach on different media because, on average, one person gets information from seven different sources each day, she said. CWS communicates through its website; two electronic newsletters, one for staff and one for government officials; internal briefing papers and an intranet site; public tours; a speakers bureau of professionals equipped to talk about different topics at educational events; new-customer information packets; radio advertisements; Facebook and two Twitter accounts; electronic news releases; and postings on local news blogs, DeBaker said.
Developing a response to the hard questions
DeBaker recognizes that many utilities do not have many resources or staff members to devote to communications and outreach. If nothing else, a utility should think of the questions that it doesn’t want to answer and come up with responses for them. “Try to think of the top five questions you don’t want to be asked and then have those answers ready to go,” DeBaker said.
DeBaker also recommends designating one person to communicate to the public and respond to media requests, she said. If a utility doesn’t respond, the media will find its own information. DeBaker recommends asking reporters for their deadline and the information they need, as well as making an effort to respond before that deadline, she said.
“The biggest service that they can do for their organization is to think of those top five questions, figure out who is going to answer those questions, don’t ignore the media, [and] don’t ignore the public,” DeBaker said.
“There’s actually a science to communications that, unfortunately, I think a lot of people discount,” Katz said. Make sure you aren’t starting in the position of a deficit in terms of public perception; put a face with a name, brand, and image in front of the public, she said.