It’s our pleasure to again work with Keri-Ann Baker on an article that recently appeared in the print magazine Journal for the American Water Works Association. The article focuses on how social media and timely communications can help your Online Reputation Management efforts. We originally worked with Keri-Ann in a piece that covered reputation management of utility companies.
Breaking the White Paper Cycle – How to Time Social Media to Positively Influence Your Utilities Online Reputation
The increased use of internet technology has resulted in the rise of social media by planners, local governments, the general public and of course water utilities. Social media has become a major platform for consumers to voice their thoughts, praise and complaints to businesses and utilities in the public sphere. The general public has by and large adopted the use of social media as it provides real time information about everything from the weather, trends, traffic and public projects and meetings. For example, the Federal government uses social media platforms to announce emergencies, employee work day cancelation, and policy announcements.
Social media provides information to the general public in a timely manner with limited costs and allows all to communicate and comment on this information. From a utilities perspective social media allows utility companies to proactively communicate with its customers and the public at large. Social media engagement offers many benefits, but these benefits can also be mismanaged exposing water utilities to negative social media attention.
Timing Your Message To Maximize Its Effect
In the past, the scientific, utility and governmental community has engaged in the “whitepaper cycle” as a means of responding to criticism concerning its projects, events or controversial positions. In an world of instant information, the white paper approach is slow and the relevant information often reaches the general public after all momentum related to the whitepaper is lost… The “whitepaper effect” paralyzes a utilities’ communication about the issue until each and every piece of information is thoroughly vetted in a cumbersome peer reviewed process that can last weeks, months and in some cases years. Often, at the end of this “whitepaper cycle” the general public has already obtained and disseminated information related to the topic of the whitepaper from various social media sites and water utility companies loose the opportunity to positively influence the conversation with data and scientific information. Utilities must break this cycle by anticipating criticism and designing a strategy to prospectively address this criticism in the current real-time information world we live in.
Sometimes, such as in the case of emergencies, a water utility will have no choice but to react to the emergency. However, there are ample opportunities for a utility to prospectively engage in social media activities on the positive attributes of its projects and/or services. The planning process for utility expansion, repair and conservation efforts provides a utility with the opportunity to control the message and positively engage its customers and the public. When a utility fails to plan for these social media opportunities it allows someone else to control the flow and timing of information and sentiment about its projects and services. The utility is then forced into a reactionary mindset instead of a proactively managed mindset. Water utilities need to move beyond the “whitepaper effect” which seems to essentially vary between response, hysteria, retreat into a whitepaper silence allowing everyone else to comment on your project while you remain silent. The timing of the “whitepaper” completely misses the opportunity to positively impact any meaningful change and often opinion and biases related to the topic have already been established. Going forward, utilities need to assess their activities and regularly transmit the positive activities to the public prior to any PR frenzy.
Establish a Social Media Plan
To gain back control of the way the public receives information and perceives your organization you need to establish a social media plan. Social media plans should include three major categories:
- General Information – As the general public expects continual real time information, social media profiles should be structured to allow for consistent and accurate updates related to the utility. Outages, safety notices, or other information that the general public receives through other resources should be also communicated through social media accounts. This allows the public to receive information in real time and in a way they prefer to receive it, having a positive effect on how consumers view the utility company.
- Custom Support – Phone support services are often viewed by the public as slow and outdated. The general public feels they receive better and faster customer service by voicing concerns on social networks. By offering customer support services through social media, utility companies can ensure that angry customers take their frustrations offline instead of voicing them loudly on social media. An unanswered social concern can quickly snowball into a reputation crisis.
- Thought Leadership – By engaging with the general public through social media platforms, utility companies have the opportunity to help shape the way the public views and perceives the utility company and it’s activities. By providing supporting evidence, research, and other data through social media, a utility company can build social support behind it’s activities and strategies. This protects utilities from vocal minorities that would push the public towards different views on critical topic areas.
A social media plan that covers these three areas will help utility companies gain back control of the public perception of them and provide more control over topics that previously may have been supported with a whitepaper.
Social media will continue to grow by public and private utilities as it offers real time and cost-effective communication and is widely accepted a mainstream source of information. Social media allows a utility to engage their customers and importantly allows it to ¬garner support for its projects. In the future we expect to see utilities create websites entirely devoted to various projects or initiatives. Laws, which notoriously trail technology, are already encouraging a paperless approach to project planning and the online dissemination of information. At least two federal laws, “Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998”, and the “E-government Act of 2002”, encourage a paperless work environment and give legal effect to electronic documents. (See Social Media and Local Governments Navigating the New Public Square, by Patricia E. Salkin and Julie A. Tappendorf). Social Media will continue and the public’s expectation for timely electronic data will become the norm in the coming years. To break the “whitepaper cycle”, social media plans should be designed and disseminated in the public square. Social media strategies are cost-effective and also allows for the public to voice their concerns and more importantly for utilities to address concerns in real time giving the utility the opportunity to address small problems before the negatively impact the utilities reputation.
Dan Hinckley is a founding partner with Go Fish Digital. He practices in brand strategy management, IT consulting and SEO strategies. The combination of these skills sets uniquely position him to develop comprehensive strategies for SEO that span across branding and IT domains. He can be reached at email@example.com, and https://twitter.com/dhinckley.
Keri-Ann C. Baker is an attorney with Lewis, Longman & Walker. Ms. Baker’s practice focuses on tribal capacity, administrative law, ports, airports and transportation, water, marine and coastal construction, and local government and technology issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://twitter.com/KeriAnnBaker.
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Featured Image from Jason A. Howie.