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Water Utilities are on the Front Line – An interview with Karen Raucher

Karen Raucher HSCommunication research is very clear that you have to enter the conversation wherever your audience is; not where you’d like them to be, but where they are.

Who is the best person or organization to communicate how climate change is affecting local water security? University scientists? Federal officials? Conservationists?

A recent report on national polling data from the Water Research Foundation gives a fascinating answer – water utilities! And here’s why:

  • People believe them when they talk about climate change and water security
  • They’re on the front lines, because, especially in the West, climate change is all about water
  • Utilities know it’s a lot cheaper to take action now rather than later, and their rate payers trust them to spend money wisely

At Carpe Diem West we recently took an initial dive into these findings with Karen Raucher, the report’s lead researcher at Stratus Consulting.

Why is it important for utilities to address the climate issues now as they reach out to their rate payers and different constituencies?

We’re still at the point in this conversation where we’re talking about developing an understanding of the issue. And communication research is very clear that you have to enter the conversation wherever your audience is; not where you’d like them to be, but where they are.

And I think Americans, in terms of a broad audience, is in kindergarten or first grade about climate change. Utilities can begin this conversation by talking about the water cycle, and it’s an appropriate thing for them to be talking about.

We don’t know the solutions; we don’t even really understand the problem. One of the big issues in Denver, for example, is the climate change sign isn’t even clear. Are we going to have more precipitation here or less? It’s very difficult to talk about those complex issues, particularly if people don’t have a basic understanding.

In 5, 10 years when we’ve figured out what we need to do, we want to talk to our community and say, “Well, we have to do this, and we know you don’t want to, but we have to do it because of climate change.” And we want them to say, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I don’t want to do it, but I understand that the climate change is forcing our hand on this.” And that takes time.

What would it take for a utility or a regional group of utilities to conduct a similar survey to the one you’ve done to ensure that the national results apply regionally and customize their messaging with their local constituents in the appropriate context?

One of the great things about the report is we provide all the survey questions and the methodology for analyzing them, so if you want to conduct this survey in your community, all of it is right there. If you want to look at the message map we’ve developed for Denver Water and Miami-Dade Sewer & Water as a prototype, they’re in there, as well as the mapping tool. There’s a link to training modules and an educational series that are all hosted on the web.

I love the idea of communities getting together. There’s a Front Range Climate Alliance group, there’s a Southern Florida climate group. There’s lots of climate groups, and this can be a really great way to kind of leverage your resources. No one group has to pay for it, but everybody gets the information to do the survey.

What other groups should utilities think about partnering with in their messaging efforts? Specifically, is there opportunity for utilities to engage their business customers on the need for action?

I would say absolutely. One of the nice things is business customers often have money, so they’re willing to provide some funding as well, as they are equally concerned with these issues. And the more people you can bring to the table in terms of being partners in the research, the stronger the message is just by the strength of the contributors.

Did your research say anything about using opportunities like extreme weather events to increase the impact of the messaging?

Climate change communication research has looked a lot at the question about whether we should leverage messaging around extreme events, and they say absolutely. But the window of opportunity is fairly short. Within about six weeks to three months, people’s memory is gone. So if you want to leverage it, do it quickly, and have that message prepared in advance so you can pull it out when the event occurs.

What are the best methods utilities can use to reach their customers with these messages?

The most trusted messengers are your friends and neighbors and colleagues. So the biggest priority for utilities is to make sure that every single one of their employees is their trusted messenger and knows what the message is – what we refer to as “mainstreaming” the message at the organization. When their neighbor says, “Hey, you know, I’m not sure climate change is real. Is that an issue at Denver Water?” they have a response. That’s probably the most important place to start with messaging.

Is regional mainstreaming practical? Might that be an effective approach for the smaller utilities, or does the mainstreaming need to be totally internal?

Can you develop regional messages that are effective for changing how people think about climate? Absolutely. Ideally, one of the next steps is the ability to bring together a few of our cutting-edge agencies, those Denver Water utilities, that are willing to be on the front lines. There’s huge risks to the utilities in taking on being a climate change communicator.

They get that feedback from their board, from other people in positions of authority; this is not easy. But ideally, you find three or four, Denver Water, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, those kind of agencies, that will step up to the plate and develop some regional messaging that the smaller utilities can use, because frankly, they don’t have the resources available to do that.

Water agencies have so much going on right now: there’s the aging infrastructure; extreme events that they need to prepare for; the economic downtrend was very difficult on the financial position of most utilities, conservation has been very difficult on the financial capabilities of utilities. They’re not in a position to step up easily.

We’ve talked some about educational messaging and changing opinions on climate change adaptation, but really, only 8% of folks are actually against the fight. Doesn’t it make sense – and isn’t it a better use of time – to work with the people who are with us already on this?

We’re not trying to change people’s opinions. It’s not the water agencies’ job to make people believe in climate change. It’s to take those groups of people who are already supportive and bring them along. Educate them as to what the issues are going to be, are likely to be, educate them about this large uncertainty, and that uncertainty is now a fact, and to bring them along in being supportive so at the end of the day, they can say, “Okay, I don’t really want to build a bigger reservoir because I’m really against that, my values are against that, but I can see that if I want to have safe, reliable supplies of water in the future, I’m going to have to.”

Digging into the data a little bit, we now know what powerful messengers utilities are. How do we leverage that? Who else is important to bring along?

Are utility leaders even interested in being the climate change communication leaders? I think that would be my next research question – go out and ask these utility leaders, “Do you want to do this? If you do, what can we do to support your ability to do that well?”

Karen Raucher is a Senior Associate at Stratus Consulting where her research focuses on how information can be both gathered and shared to create support for policy decisions, with a current emphasis on climate change and adaptation planning.


Image – Michael Courtney / Shutterstock.com


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