Clean Water Advocate

The Vital Role of Communications in Utility Management

Alan Heymann | Founder at Peaceful Direction

We recently sat down with Alan Heymann, JD, PCC, to chat about the broad set of challenges facing the clean water sector and how effective communications can help utilities move forward. Heymann formerly worked for DC Water as the Chief of External Affairs, Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder and President of Blue Drop, DC Water’s nonprofit company with a mission to benefit the utility and its ratepayers. Now an executive coach and leadership consultant, Heymann has presented at NACWA events in the past about the importance of communications in our sector. 

 Here he shares his take on the importance of communications for utilities and the need to bring these voices into your inner circle as strategic advisors. 


Q: How have clean water utilities’ communications needs changed since you initially worked in the sector?

AH: The world of clean water utilities keeps getting more complex and more expensive. So the need to be upfront and public about these challenges continues to be more pressing. It doesn't matter if you only serve wholesale customers. Your list of stakeholders goes well beyond those who are actually paying the bills. In the past decade, we've gone well beyond the basic "where does it go when you flush" messaging into issues like PFAS, the beneficial reuse of biosolids and the billions upon billions of dollars going into combined-sewer overflow tunnels in major cities across the United States. That's a lot for the public to swallow without skilled communications executives helping to lead their way through it.


Q: What does it mean to have communications “at the table”?

AH: To me, having a seat at the table means being in the room when important, strategic decisions are made. It means contributing to that discussion by carrying the perspectives of ratepayers and other external stakeholders into the room. It means weighing in on how the impact of those decisions will play with the audience. It does not mean catching up after the fact. Of course, I believe communications should have a seat at the table! My first job leading a water utility's communications and outreach team began nearly 15 years ago. At that time, I had the good fortune of reporting to a chief executive who understood the value of stakeholder engagement. It was a fairly uncommon idea in the sector back then. I honestly have trouble believing this is still in question a decade and a half later.


Q: What types of challenges can communications professionals help utility executive leaders navigate? 

AH: An empowered, properly structured and well-funded communications operation connects a utility with its customers. The job is to help translate highly technical material -- whether it's the details of a new construction project or a response to a rulemaking -- into something the audience can understand and will care about. The job is also to listen. What are the ratepayers concerned about? How can the utility help? Utilities put their ratepayers through a fair amount of pain, whether it's through increased charges for the service they provide, or through the hassles of construction. I refer to a "reservoir of goodwill" that utilities must build with their constituents. You add to the reservoir by showing up, listening, being responsive to concerns and making sure ratepayers know the importance of the life-giving services you provide. This is what the communications team does. You deplete the reservoir with higher rates and disruptive infrastructure work, and then it's time to fill it back up again.


Q: As someone who has worked in communications and went to law school, do you see any parallels between the two? 

AH: I think there are a lot of parallels here, [but] the fields of play are slightly different. The attorney's expertise comes from careful reading of case law and legislative text, and knowledge of the various decision-making bodies that will affect what the utility does. The communications person has storytelling expertise and has their finger on the pulse of the public and other key stakeholders, including mass and social media personalities.  The common link is their ability to mind an area of the business for the boss, looking for risks and opportunities. The communications person wouldn't be able to do this effectively through an accountant any more than a general counsel would. Ideally, I'd see these two functions as tightly aligned on an executive team. Picture the attorney carefully vetting the language about a new rulemaking, or the communications person identifying key points for the public in a recently negotiated settlement.


Q: What advice would you offer to utilities that may be hesitant to have communications at the table?

AH: Do it without hesitation! Give your communications (or external relations, or stakeholder engagement) leader an executive-level title and salary. Support them with a team of ample size. Consider the role as vital as that of the person managing your finances or operations. You cannot run a utility in 2024 without it.

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