Engaging the Community – Going Beyond the Cheap Steps


In a prior blog, I raised the question about marketing your water to your community.  The issue resulted from a comment that public dollars should not be spent on advertising.  There were several comments about this and we perhaps need to explore that option further.  One question raised was “how do we engage our community?”  There are a variety of ways to engage the community, but most utilities pursue only superficial, and inexpensive solutions, if pursued at all.  The typical solutions include speaker’s bureaus, mailers, flyers, notes on water bills, the consumer confidence report, press releases, presentations at commission meetings and water conservation efforts.  But how well do these work?  Certainly every utility should pursue many if not all of these options.  Getting positive information out to the community is needed, but does it change the perception of the community toward the utility?  Hard to say, but if that is the goal, you may be surprised how limited the impact of these efforts may be.  For one thing, most mailers, etc are viewed as junk mail so are not read by the customers.  Likewise most people do not pay attention to commission meetings, or read the paper (assuming the paper publishes the press release).  So many of these well intended, and time consuming efforts may be create limited engagement.  More proactive and maybe time consuming efforts are often needed to create an impact.

So what might work better?  If trying to change perception of the utility, more hands-on engagement may be needed.  It may mean reaching targeted audiences that can change current or long-term perceptions.  This can occur in a number of ways.  Here are a few:

  • School competitions for water conservation, hydrant painting, model water tanks – the concept here is to provide fun to elementary and middle school kids while encouraging them to learn about a given topic.  Normally involves teachers and parents, which enhances the message and spreads the “word.”  There are state and national competitions that students can participate in as well.  Utility management support is required, as and some resources and some devotion of time from staff to coordinate efforts among students and teachers.  But it puts the utility in front of an impressionable audience and provides a learning opportunity very different from the normal classroom.  How would that not be memorable?
  • Middle school programs with utility staff – the concept here is to encourage utility staff to communicate directly with middle school kids about what they do.  The key is to get younger kids interested in pursuing jobs in the field.  One of the ongoing issues in the utility industry is “graying,” and the potential for almost 50% of the workforce to retire in the near future.  Getting students to change their careers in college is too late.  Often high school is as well.  Middle school kids have rarely given much thought to their careers.  What better way to recruit that to put the utility in front of kids and get them thinking about going into the water field.?
  • Tours of facilities for school kids – most students learn visually, so tours of the facility are useful to create interest and enhance learning. Security is an issue, but they are kids.  It is always useful to know what goes on with water and wastewater. And it’s normally a positive, out of the classroom experience.  What kid doesn’t like a field trip?
  • Summer internships for high school students – this is another effort to engage and educate students, while perhaps setting the stage for a future employee who understands what win needed to do the work.  Teachers and parents are required to be part of the process – otherwise who recommends the students ad how do they get to work?  It helps if this is coupled with earlier introductions to the utility, so kids have become interested in the career prior to the job opportunities.  Think about the kid who learns about and tours the utility in middle school, knowing internships might be available in a couple years.
  • Partner with local universities on research issues – The focus is universities, not trade schools or community colleges, because universities do research and this capacity is often underutilized in the business work.  In part this is because their mission is misunderstood – they teach students to think as opposed to technical skills, which means things might take a little longer.  But universities have lots of technical resources, literature and skills that can be useful to utility systems.  Often the cost is less than consultants, and the access to data and knowledge is usually beyond that of consultants as well.  The utility needs to find the right person to connect with for small projects as some university folks avoid small projects, but many engineering professors welcome the opportunities.  Also many universities are public entities, which means bid laws may not apply for public agencies.  That makes it easier….
  • Sponsoring research projects for graduate students – graduate students need projects to complete their thesis.  They need real data and utility projects and research are generally beneficial.  And they need jobs so research is like an extended interview.  Professors are looking for research to collaborate on.  Utilities often need testing of pilot projects before design is initiated or completed.  As a result, utility sponsored research is a win-win for everyone.
  • Offering paid internships for undergraduate students – college students need money to pay tuition and experience to get a job.  The utility can engage and educate students, while perhaps setting the stage for a future employee if they do the job well.  Internships are extended interviews to gauge student skills.  And universities can help recommend good students.  Another win-win.
  • College scholarships – scholarships recognize good students, while creating the potential to attract future talent.  AWWA has found that most students who receive scholarships in from the water industry, stay in the field.
  • Co-hosting conferences – many conferences are looking for sponsors, money and locations.  Local conferences normally get some press, which helps the water profession.  Another win-win.
  • Hosting training programs- like conference, training is something all engineers, finance people, and operations and field personnel need.  Like conferences, many training programs are looking for sponsors, money and locations.
  • Participation in activities like Habitat for Humanity – utilities have tools and skilled labor.  They can help with community based activities.  Management needs to be engaged and show leadership for such projects to be successful, but there can be no losers in activities like this.
  • Awards – Apply for them.  They are noteworthy, and publishable!
  • Newspaper advertisements about events or accolades – some elected officials are opposed to self-laudatory commentary or marketing.  But in the competitive environment we operate in, we need to maximize revenue opportunities.

There are more, how many utilities actually engage in these efforts.  Money is often used as a reason not to, but if long-term engagement is what is desired, perhaps spending limited dollars to pursued these options could present a positive benefit:cost ratio to the utility.  That would make it worthwhile.

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