On March 27 – 28, 2019, 150 water leaders from across the nation will come together for Tap into Resilience: WaterNow’s 4th Annual Summit in Austin.  This year's summit will emphasize the untapped potential for local and green infrastructure, innovative financing, and cutting-edge technology to transform the water sector.  We’re thrilled to share that this year’s keynote address will be given by Melissa Elliott, American Water Works Association’s new President-Elect.

Melissa has a 25+ year communications career spent almost entirely with water, wastewater utilities and municipalities. She oversees communication planning, stakeholder engagement, and risk communication strategies for Raftelis where she works with utilities across the United States to help them tell their story. She previously served as the Director of Public Affairs for Denver Water, developing among other initiatives, a nationally recognized lead service line replacement program and award-winning water conservation program. Melissa has worked extensively with elected officials, stakeholders, and the public on issues as diverse as drought, water quality, potable reuse, affordability, rate structure change, demand management, and more.

WaterNow caught up with Melissa this week to talk about the evolving role of communication for water resource stewards.

Congratulations on your recent election! What do you think will be a big focus of your work in the coming year as AWWA’s President-Elect?

The role provides a larger platform for the work that I’ve always done: to elevate conversations about the water services that utilities and cities provide. These services are essential, but are underappreciated and often hidden. For the most part, people in the United States haven’t gone without high quality, reliable water and wastewater services, so for most people it’s always been there and it’s expected that it will always be there.

We’ve done ourselves a bit of disservice by not talking about how difficult it is to get water to taps, to take it away, and to make sure that it doesn’t harm the environment after treatment. AWWA has been a proponent of elevating the conversation about the value of water services. I hope to get that message even more prominently in front of our industry.

What’s one important lesson you’ll be sharing at Tap into Resilience next month in Austin?

I’m going to tell the story about how I became connected forever to the water industry. That transformation occurred because I realized how essential it is to the everyday. And I’m not talking about how we need water to live, I’m talking about the activities you do every single day that are reliant on water and wastewater services. If they’re not there, we don’t have an economy, we don’t have a foundation, and public health is at risk.

I want our water leaders in the room to understand what a valuable service they’re providing to their community by leading and making important decisions on water resource management. Often times these folks are really connected to their communities so we need them to be telling the story. We need them to be advocating on behalf of the industry - whether that’s going to your state legislature, attending a WaterNow Alliance meeting to learn more, or sharing ideas with other policymakers in your region.

What’s great about having this many people come to Austin to share and learn is that this is an audience that hasn’t had opportunities like this in the past. One of the things I like about WaterNow Alliance Summits is at the end of the event they always ask “What Happens on Monday?” We all get excited about new ideas when we’re together and listening to presentations, but it’s how you implement those ideas back home that really makes a difference. I would like to help WaterNow light a fire with our policymakers about what we’re doing Monday and really understanding our role as an essential player in our community. 

How did you begin working with water utilities?

In 2002, I was a Public Information Officer in the City Manager’s Office for the City of Aurora, Colorado when the region entered a severe drought. Droughts really have a way of getting all hands on deck, and I was tasked with helping the Utility with their communications and water conservation initiative.  By the time the drought ended in 2004, Aurora was nine months away from being completely out of water and residents were under mandatory water restrictions.

Although I began working with them under stressful circumstances, I fell in love with the work of the utility and the essential services that they provided. I enjoyed taking the technical nature of what the utility did for the City and telling that story to customers. The drought helped people to open their eyes to the value of water. And this work paid off, over the last 17 years Aurora has done an incredible job of leading the way on water efficiency.

With today’s shorter-and-shorter attention spans, how can cities and utilities break through the noise to reach people?

What I see a lot from utilities is that the material they publish is only about the utility itself, not really about the customer. Utilities need to reframe their focus and talk about what the customer really needs and then work backwards on messaging. The goal should be to expand consumers’ knowledge, and sometimes that means we need to be transparent and cover things that aren’t always happy in our work. This is really how you can break through the noise: By providing very believable, fact-based information that’s connected to what the customer wants at that particular time.

And frankly, it has to be entertaining.  If your first sentence starts with “we’re pleased to introduce a new program that does blah blah blah”, you’re not going to grab the reader. We also need to start making things visual. What goes viral is often just something that people shot with their iPhone. Get your own employees out there taking video of what they’re doing. This will give your utility personality -- and that’s what people want.

Raising rates is often a recipe for political backlash from customers. How can decisionmakers address their customers’ concerns?

The number one strategy is to bring customers along with you on your journey. Often times rate changes stem from the need to invest in new or upgraded infrastructure. Rather than announcing the change to your customers after it’s been adopted, a strategy that works really well is to form an advisory committee or panel of interested residents that represent the community. Having customer representatives weigh in during a few meetings in advance of a rate increase helps in a number of ways. First, it drives more input into the decision-making process. Second, it allows the municipality to test out messaging and how people feel about the impact on customers in advance of the change which helps drive communication. Lastly, it’s very powerful to have a group of residents who’ve worked with you for several months and are now extremely informed about the change to come to the deciding body and say – “we endorse the process used and here’s our recommendation.”

If you haven't registered yet, don't miss your chance to see Melissa speak in person at Tap into Resilience, the WaterNow Alliance 4th Annual Summit.


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