Thursday, April 23, 2015

Branding Update
April 23, 2015

Language Matters

Clarity or Politics - It is tempting to think that what we say and how we say it are not that important given the political environment of water investment decisions.  But in reality nothing could be further from the truth.  The language we use does have an impact on outcomes.  The ability to communicate value and create compelling arguments for investment (at the local, regional, and state levels) is essential if we want to facilitate a productive dialogue, minimize politics, and ensure appropriate investment in resources and infrastructure.  Conversely, lack of clarity leaves the door open for politics or ideology-based decisions.

Motivations, Standards, and Risk Management - As we have discussed in previous Branding Updates, the language of value is motivations and standards.  Our audiences need to know why before they can understand what or how.  So when we talk about investing in water reliability, what are we talking about?  Is the “response to a drought” dominating the dialogue (which is very relevant in the California these days) or are we talking about maintaining reliability standards that are meaningful.  For example, do community leaders and decision makers know that the “risks of a sustained water shortage must be extremely low?”  And do they know that this low tolerance for water-supply risk is prudent given the uncertainty created by climate change and the severe economic impacts of a sustained water shortage.  Does water reliability depend on the weather or on the standards, risk assessment, regional planning, communications, and investments by local water utilities and regional water agencies?

Not “Dumbing It Down” – Water and wastewater professionals have tendency to think in terms of making technical issues meaningful to the average person, often referred to as “dumbing it down.”  The problem is that value issues are not technical issues, and the average person is perfectly capable of understanding clear and compelling communications.  To be blunt, as an industry we must upgrade our language.  The challenge associated with ensuring appropriate investment in resources and infrastructure is only going to increase.  And we should not be satisfied with waiting for supply shortages or service failures to open the check books.  This approach often leads to reactive decisions that don’t lead to the highest value.  Improving our language means emphasizing motivations and standards, which often includes communicating in meaningful ways about risks and risk mitigation.  Our arguments for investment must communicate the problem, the solution, financial impacts, the logic behind the timing of the investment, and the ramifications of not taking action.  In short, our language and the structure of our investment proposals must answer the most relevant questions in advance. 

Review Investment Proposals with a Critical Eye – If you don’t believe that we need to improve our language, just read recent investment proposals (in the form of communications to policy makers) produced by almost any water utility.  Are they free of technical jargon, easy to read, and compelling?  Do they categorize the important information so the reader does not have determine on their own whether somethings is a standard, a problem, a solution, a risk, or a timing concern?  Do these communications clearly address all of the questions that decision makers should be asking?  Ultimately, does the case for investment make it difficult for a policy maker to justify a “no” vote?  These communications do not need to be long, they just need to be well-structured and clear.

Most utility communications directly or indirectly support proposals for needed investment.  And most of us do not give up our money easily.  Given this, shouldn’t our language be compelling before we blame it on politics, or policy makers who don’t have the “courage” to raise rates?

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