Article | December 28, 2023

Early, Often, And Honest: A Guide To Communicating About Lead

Source: Water Online

By Christian Bonawandt

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The Biden Administration’s proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) won’t be finalized until late 2024, yet it is already causing a stir among water utilities. Among the many changes and additions, the LCRI as it stood at the start of the comment period will lower the action level to 10 ppb for lead and will mandate that all lead service lines (LSLs) be located and replaced within 10 years. The expectation is that many thousands of water utilities are going to find themselves pressured to take action or step up existing actions.

In addition to testing and LSL replacement, the LCRI also includes updates to communications guidelines for water utilities. In the wake of the Flint, Michigan crisis, consumers are very sensitive about any information related to lead in their water. Water utilities need to do everything in their power to maintain trust between themselves and ratepayers. The following guide should help water utilities avoid some of the worst pitfalls associated with LCR-related communications.

Understand LCRI Communication Requirements

The LCRI has extensive guidelines for when and how to communicate with ratepayers, including public education about lead, testing results, LSL inventory and replacement, and more. According to Sandra Kutzing, senior vice president of lead and copper strategy at CDM Smith, a global engineering and construction firm, water utilities need to be careful how they apply the rules. “It’s very positive for systems that actually do have lead and need to communicate it,” she says. “My concern is for systems that actually don't have lead and have to follow these same rules and requirements, I think there’s going to be some unnecessary panic if not handled correctly.”

For those utilities that already have an LCR communication strategy in place, the first thing to do is perform an audit. Messaging should be adjusted based on the new or potentially new LCR-related actions and requirements.

For those that don’t have an existing communications strategy, now is the time to make one. AWWA recommends designating a specific person to handle overseeing and executing LCR communication. The exact makeup of the communication will depend on the size and demographics of the community being served, and can include a mix of flyers, robo-calls, webinars, open houses, and more.

Get Ahead of the Messaging

“You've got to be out there early and often talking about what you're doing and how you're doing it,” says Mike McGill, president and principal for WaterPIO, a water and wastewater public communications firm. He advises utilities that customers are more likely to trust the first source they hear from. “If I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last,” he says.

McGill notes that even when a utility’s LCR strategy is completely on point, “if you don't say anything and something happens in a neighboring utility where they do have a lead problem, [customers are] going to come to you and ask you what you're doing.”

This is particularly important for those utilities that have few or no lead lines, according to Rose Hanson, senior marketing and communications specialist at CDM Smith. “If a utility doesn't have a lot of lead lines, you can have messaging ahead of time saying, ‘This is a regulation we're complying with. You're going to get this notification, don't panic. You likely don't have a lead line.’”

Communicate Frequently (And Clearly)

In addition to positioning themselves as the first source of information on lead, water utilities must ensure they are reaching out as often as possible. Regular updates instill confidence in the utility's commitment to addressing water quality concerns and allow residents to stay informed about any changes in the LCR strategy. Hanson says the amount of communication should increase with the amount of lead or possible lead in the system. “If a community is fairly certain it doesn't have a lot of lead lines, then you can do what I would call is on the minimal side of communication,” she says. “Then if there's communities where there's been lead issues for years and maybe the utility hasn't done the best job in the past, then flood the communication.”

McGill insists that while there is no such thing as too much communication, utilities can communicate poorly. For example, using words such as danger or threat can “introduce a thought that wasn’t even in play for the customer.” Instead, it is best to focus on what testing shows, what the plan is, and any actions that customers themselves need to take.

Admit What You Don’t Know

In addition to using positive language, water utilities should admit what they don’t know. For example, if there are gaps in the LSL inventory, then customers should be made aware that the inventory process is not yet complete. “If you try and tap dance and spin people on something like that, you're going to lose,” says McGill. Any sort of dishonesty or evasiveness is likely to evoke fears of Flint, MI, and bait reports to go digging. Once the truth comes out, it could take years to build back that trust.

Hanson adds that, particularly when it comes to inventories, utilities can use this honesty to recruit consumers to help them, such as by posting inventory online and asking customers to help identify lead lines in their own homes. “This brings them into the process, and it gives them concrete action steps they can take to help reduce that fear,” she says.

Engage With Stakeholders Early

The LCRI contains an extensive list of stakeholders, which include public and private health entities, schools, environmental NGOs, and many others. Kutzing insists that meeting the LCRI as they are written is going to be an “all-hands-on-deck situation.”

She emphasizes the importance of working with political bodies as well. “They need to understand what's going on, how important this is, because we're going to have to figure out ways to make exceptions to some of the moratoriums on paving, some of the permitting that's required, some of the inspections that are required because there's just not enough people to get this done,” she says.

McGill agrees, saying early coordination avoids blame shifting and encourages cooperation. “If a headline happens in the paper and a community leader or elected official hasn't been told first it's coming, they're going to be pointing fingers at you instead,” he explains. “So, there's got to be a lot of coordination from the earliest stages.”

Christian Bonawandt is an industrial content writer for Water Online. He has been writing about B2B technology and industrial processes for 23 years.