By Rebecca Zito
Communication between a utility and its customers has historically been sparse and negative — complaints on one side, bills and notices on the other — but healthy communication is now encouraged as a key aspect of successful infrastructure development.
Utility and energy providers have learned that both public and stakeholder engagement play major roles in the long-term success of water infrastructure projects. Investing in the right technology, tools, and services to communicate information can help your water utility secure public support and reduce (or eliminate) community resistance in the long run.
Ongoing customer engagement during infrastructure projects requires a multifaceted and well-executed approach. It’s imperative to remain transparent, prioritize continuous communication, and meet customers where they are.
Here’s how water utility providers can use customer engagement when carrying out infrastructure initiatives:
"Every community is different. That’s why it’s important to have a well-defined process when targeting specific individuals, households, and communities."
1. Involve the Community
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which serves a population of 465,000 residents and businesses in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities, is currently investing in a massive water, sewage, and stormwater infrastructure update that’s part of a $1.4 billion improvement program. We plan to reinvest, rebuild, and modernize many of our large-scale pumping and water distribution pieces into 2026.
As part of this years long undertaking, we’re using different techniques to include customers in the discussion and keep them informed, from social media posts to community meetings. At in-person meetings, we ask for input from the community during different design stages. We also keep customers informed about the current project status and relevant information that could impact their lives.
During these meetings, we direct customers to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority website, which lists all of our construction projects. We’ve also developed project brochures and mailed them to residents within the project area. Door hangers can also be used. Again, it’s all about keeping residents informed and meeting them where they are.
2. Prioritize Geo-Targeting
Every community is different. That’s why it’s important to have a well-defined process when targeting specific individuals, households, and communities. This can include the following steps:
- Utilize a geographic information system (GIS) to define the project area.
- Identify the residents and businesses located in the defined geographic region.
- Hold a community meeting, letting residents know what’s happening and encouraging them to ask questions.
- Reach out to community ambassadors who are familiar with these neighborhoods and communities. Encouraging people who live in these areas to talk to their neighbors adds a more personal dimension to the conversation, benefiting both the utility and the residents.
- Notify residents and businesses via emails, automated phone calls, or letters as you enter various stages of the water infrastructure project.
- Set up a project page on your website and update it with in-depth information on current project statuses, such as the construction impact and estimated length of time.
- Use social media to expand project awareness during the early stages. Update and post regularly.
- Continue the conversation on social media and during in-person meetings.
3. Encourage Continuous Communication
No one likes ongoing construction in their neighborhood — it can be noisy and disruptive. However, this can initiate a two-way conversation between communities and water utilities.
Establishing a point of contact during the initial stages can help. A communications project manager can facilitate calls and complaints from residents, answering questions and offering as much information as possible. How long will the project last? What are the long-term benefits of the project? Highlighting the many ways a water infrastructure upgrade will benefit the community can offset the annoyance of short-term inconveniences.
As the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority continues its infrastructure and stormwater update, we’ve found many opportunities for community engagement when incorporating green infrastructure.
Stormwater projects tend to be more visible to communities because they often occur on the surface. We’re putting rain gardens, vegetation, and permeable pavers into a public space. These are things people can see. Once you start executing a project like that, it creates an opportunity for a conversation about anything else the neighborhood needs. This helps the utility participate in productive discussions, establishing a positive dialogue that builds trust.
4. Engage and Involve Community Partners
Outside of construction and infrastructure projects, forming advisory groups with community stakeholders and partners is an effective model when implementing programs that are new to the utility, or will directly affect a large number of customers.
Bringing together a diverse group of engaged community representatives will help you talk through potential challenges and shape a program before its launch. Some advisory groups will only meet for a short period, whereas others have an ongoing relationship to continually review and adapt a program as needs or expectations change.
The two-way dialogue created with advisory groups builds awareness and understanding of the challenges that both the utility and customers may face. These are opportunities for heart-to-heart conversations with those who are directly impacted by an expanded service or new program. Working with an engaged group of stakeholders builds trust and establishes informed advocates for the utility.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has formed advisory groups to establish the foundation for a new stormwater fee, advance customer assistance programs, and the ongoing implementation of our Community Lead Response.
The Importance Of Customer Engagement
The silent utility provider has become a thing of the past. Transparency, frequent communication, and awareness have become critical factors in the success of infrastructure projects. Not only does customer engagement help water utility providers avoid unwanted backlash and resistance, but it also helps them better serve customers.
About The Author
Rebecca Zito is the senior manager of public affairs for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. She is an accomplished communications professional with nine years of experience developing communication programs for local government and publicly owned and managed water utilities. She is a skilled community engagement architect, writer, collaborator, and content strategist. Rebecca is passionate about the art of storytelling to build awareness about the initiatives that shape a community.