Water utilities and media can sometimes have contentious relationships. Each entity tends to keep one eye on the other. However, being proactive in building and maintaining relationships with the media, especially the local media in your community, is a powerful tool in your messaging toolbox. News media, especially local newspapers and magazines, are doing more with less these days. Many have cut the specialized reporters, such as the environmental reporters that may have covered utilities in the past. Often times, those reporters had some background in the subject matter they were covering, and this isn’t always the case now. Water utilities need to have the patience and effective communication skills to pass this information along to media in a language and with a message that is relevant to their audience.
For all intents and purposes, local media in this case means newspapers, magazines, and other community-based publications that exist within your city limits. Community media has been hit the hardest by cutbacks and staff has been reduced to bare bones. You can make yourself a trusted source of content and information. Here are a few things to keep in mind when outreaching to local media.
Keep it Local
People are interested in what’s happening in their own backyard. Local media gives the community a chance to show off their pride and what makes them unique. Tie your events and content to your community’s values. If you’re unsure of what those are, ask the local journalist. Have regular check-ins or coffee meetings to chat about what’s on the horizon. Pick their brain about things you have coming up and the best way to message it to the community. Build trust and make communicating the value of water a team effort. Cathy Bailey, executive director for Greater Cincinnati Water Works, ensured the utility had a presence at community meetings when building the utility’s lead service line replacement program. Being present in the community you serve builds trust and demonstrates to customers their voice and feedback matters and is taken into consideration.
When potentially contentious or political issues arise, the gut reaction can be to go silent. George Hawkins is the former general manager at DC Water and faced many contentious public relation issues including the public outcry over lead in the drinking water. When he left DC Water eight years later, several journalists in the DC area commented on how easy it was working with him because he always made himself available. He didn’t run from difficult conversations or from people who opposed the enterprise. Hawkins said this transparent approach built a professional relationship rooted in mutual respect. The local media didn’t always print favorable stories about DC Water, but they typically gave him the opportunity to respond with the utility’s stance on the issue before the story went public. Building relationships with local media doesn’t mean they’ll never challenge you on an issue or that they will only post the positive, feel-good stories. It means they’ll have a greater understanding of the complexity of utility work, will give your enterprise the benefit of the doubt, and will provide you with a voice in the story. It’s your job to be informed and trained in effective communication skills so that you can nail the story when the opportunity presents itself.
Evergreen content is essential because journalists are looking for content during the lulls, but tie this content to the local mission. Pitch a story about the value of water but relate it back to what that means for your specific community. Highlight value-added services like consumer request lead testing programs to demonstrate the benefits customers receive through their monthly water bill in addition to water and wastewater services. Stay on local journalist’s radar by checking in regularly, at least quarterly, to keep them abreast of upcoming events. Ask them for their content deadlines, so you know when you need to submit stories for forthcoming issues. If your staff is also preparing the graphics for stories, make sure you know the proper specs for the publication. Don’t forget to have your events included in all the community calendars, both digital and traditional.
Building and maintaining relationships with local media is mutually beneficial. It’s another opportunity for your mission and message to get in front of your audience, your customers. It’s also the chance to build advocates and to bring the vital work of water utilities out of the shadows. Lead with empathy and understand that each industry, even the media, are struggling with their own issues and challenges. Build trust and find ways to tackle those challenges together.