Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reputation buster

Are there any trust surveys for water agencies?

Water and California have lived a contentious live for more than 100 years. As "documented" in the film Chinatown, those pesky Southern California businessmen "stole" water from the landowners of the eastern Sierra Nevada to help turn Los Angeles into a global economic engine.

Perhaps aided by the film, the ill feelings remain around to this day. Talk about a bad taste lasting in your mouth for a while.

Whether you're a water agency or a major corporation, trust is critical. (Note: the annual "Edelman Trust Barometer" is out today).

For the past decade, at least, water agencies in California and across the country have been studying ways to build reputation. Driving this has been the increased use of bottled water ("What, you don't trust tap water?") and price increases (witness the public reaction to the latest price hike proposal in the Sacramento area). I was part of an informal gathering of agencies trying to figure out a campaign to build trust in water agencies. The Water Research Foundation has commissioned reports about improving public trust.

Sadly, most water agencies spend more time worrying about image, or trying to explain the complexities of what they do, rather than take bold steps to build trust.

It's a challenge. One factor influencing the angst over public trust of water agencies is purely political. A handful of directors elected to water boards view their positions as stepping stones to higher office. If they can't build voter support at the water board agency level, then....

Also, water agencies sometimes are on "the other side" of environmental questions. A water project sometimes will create significant environmental issues, which then pits a water agency against a well-run environmental group. They should be on the same side.

Like many corporations, water agencies have the daily tasks to be concerned with and rarely afford enough time to look at the big, longer-range picture. And, then, they are puzzled why a rate hike is shot down by the public.

Water agencies also are the "most local" utility around. The headquarters for gas and electric utilities may not even be in the same state and the regulatory bodies that decide rate increases are hundreds of miles away.

What's the answer, or...answers?

Somewhere along this liquid history, water agencies lost a great reputation/brand - that of being an agency created to protect the public health. What better image could water agencies enjoy and maintain? Is it too late to try to recapture and promote this reputation?

With water price hikes in the short-term future for water agencies - and these hikes sometimes in the 40-50 percent range! - strategies to build trust and improve reputation are needed now more than ever.

Even with a well planned reputation strategy, customers may still grumble about rate hikes, but at least they will understand why and begin to trust their local water agency with "doing the right thing."

Right now, water agencies are too easy a target for voter/customer anger.

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