Reaching Out

Managing public opinion about your business's effect on water supplies is becoming increasingly important

Water is the hot issue of the next 25 years. You know it, I know, but the American public doesn't. Why should they? American households spend less than any other industrialized nation for their water use. In fact, every year they spend nearly twice as much on carbonated and caffeinated beverages as they do on treating drinking and wastewater.1

Companies in the industry know we are behind in grappling with the public policy issues of our most important natural resource -- with plenty of warning signs for anyone who will look. This is the second year in a row that the Rio Grande River failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico -- an event as potentially damaging as an earthquake or tsunami, yet relegated to the back pages of the papers outside the local area.

Our view is that the industry needs to adopt the necessary communication techniques to convince the public to pay attention, to assure the public that the industry has their interests at heart, and to argue for collaborative, rather than government imposed, solutions.

Different Spokes(men) for Different Folks
Here are two ways to say the same thing. "We're in compliance and do not exceed federal rules regulating water quality." And, "We live here too, and the company I work for does the right thing." Today, companies need to know both of these "languages" -- how to speak to regulators and how to speak to the general public in their communities. Just thinking you're safe because you talk to regulators can actually put you at significant risk.

You presumably know all about the increasingly stringent guidelines for regulatory compliance. Companies are under enormous pressure to clean up their act, or at least their water. Fifty-seven percent of permit or regulatory exceedances are water related.

Here's the first clue that you have to speak a different language. Ask a neighbor: "What's an exceedance?" It sounds pretty bad. After all, if you "exceed" the speed limit, you get a ticket. A small change in practice can mean a huge gain for businesses in the eyes of regulators.

However, even companies that have successfully adapted to the new standards have learned that you can come under scrutiny from an even more formidable critic -- the public. Who gets blamed the minute anything goes wrong or even appears to go wrong? You do.

The Difference Between Regulatory and Community Compliance
Let's review state-of-the-art thinking about how to maintain your corporate reputation.

First, don't settle for saying you are "in compliance." The public doesn't really know what that means, and it sounds as if you got caught and agreed to go along. In order to make the statement meaningful and credible, a third party has to say it for you.

So, how do you get others to say you're one of the good guys? Despite the fact that water quality in the United States has dramatically improved over the past 40 years -- largely as a result of reduced industrial pollution -- industry is still seen as the "bad guy" within the community. Although industrial companies have developed innovative practices and, sometimes, more careful habits, the old reputation is held against you when things go awry and sometimes when they don't. Recently, The Coca-Cola Co. invested millions of dollars building a new bottling plant in India, only to have the government shut down production after groups in the Kerala region staged public protests against Coke's "abuse" of India's already scarce water supply.2 Had Coke done anything wrong? No, but the plant still remained closed for 15 months.

Companies should regard their license to operate and their access to water resources as fragile assets. The best way to solidify these assets is to build and maintain public partnerships and awareness and to communicate your commitment in multiple ways.

Typically, building public awareness involves public information efforts, but unfortunately, public service campaigns have a reputation for being boring. We live in an MTV age, and public information campaigns are still important, but they need to be as innovative as your quality and treatment programs. Today, the Internet provides a low cost way to reach constituents, but using a Web-based strategy requires companies to think creatively. What would make people, particularly savvy younger people, come to your Web site, download something, and e-mail it to someone else?

Companies have an even more potent resource -- their own employees. We encourage companies to give their employees a simple poll asking whether their friends and neighbors regard them as experts, ask about their work, and discuss it with them. The result is usually close to 100 percent. But, when you look at what employees say back, it can be sobering.

Neighbor: "I saw a piece on TV that the city is secretly putting the water we flush down toilets back into our systems. Is that true?"
Employee: "Could be. I've seen 'em try everything."

Hardly confidence inspiring.

We're convinced that if Americans are to have confidence in the companies that use and clean their water, it will be because they successfully get their own employees to relay simple messages about the company's commitment to safety, accessibility of water, and trustworthiness. Strangely, we find that most companies actually discourage their employees from talking positively to others. Enlisting all of your employees as communications "ambassadors" is a way to effectively share your company's values and goals in the community. They talk to existing and potential customers daily, and many are their own neighbors and friends. You can turn these "grapevine" encounters into opportunities to solidify your corporate reputation and commitment to moving "beyond compliance." This approach creates networks of people empowered with positive, proactive informational messages delivered via verbal communication in person-to-person settings.

These opportunities to cultivate goodwill can occur during casual conversations or more challenging situations. The last thing you want is for someone to ask one of your employees in line at the grocery store what is going on at work, and for them to reply that: "Things have been a real mess lately. The new manager doesn't have a clue about what he is doing, but at least he's not looking over our shoulder all of the time, if you know what I mean." One of our clients actually encountered this scenario, and unbeknownst to the employee, the friendly man asking him these questions was a reporter from a local television affiliate. That comment turned into a full-scale investigative story appearing on the nightly news. Ambassador initiatives are an effective way to help your people say what you need them to say -- and avoid what you don't. There are many benefits from a strong community outreach program, and a positive public image results in greater autonomy from regulators. (They may not say that openly, but our experience and interviews with state and federal regulators at the highest level confirms it.) A good public image makes you an employer of choice, and ultimately, having competent, dedicated workers has a positive impact on your bottom line.

Enlisting Aid
There's outside help. Organizations such as the Social Investment Forum3 work to promote investments in corporations that invest in the environment and their communities -- and America is listening.

Non-government organizations (NGO's) like the Social Investment Forum are gaining more and more influence in the national dialogue, and legislators, corporate boards, and potential investors pay attention to them. The research they produce is seen by the public as impartial and proactive in regards to citizens' welfare. NGOs are "beginning to act increasingly like governmental regulatory agencies, issuing a new generation of de facto 'regulations' in the form of standards, guidelines, and certifications."4 Their recommendations put pressure on businesses and government agencies alike to enact changes in policy and practice, and fortunately, there are many ways to collaborate with them.

In the last 20 years, initiatives spurred by NGOs, and bolstered by business partners, have benefited and brought change to many industries. It is an avenue of partnership that will continue to grow in the future. Tapping the power of non-government organizations shows your company is serious about reputation management. Here are some examples of innovative collaborations: The Nature Conservancy loaned ailing Great North Paper $50 million, which in turn donated more than 200,000 acres of land to the state of Maine for conservation and research in sustainable timber harvesting. Nike gave $7.7 million to the International Youth Foundation to set up the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities, which monitors the factories of global companies' subcontractors. A third party can be a powerful confirmation that your practices and intentions are transparent and adhere to high standards. A caveat though: The third party does not immunize you from attacks, nor do they claim you're perfect. They back up your claim that you are committed to doing the right thing. And it's important to develop these relationships beforehand because, by the time you are under investigation, your claims to care about water treatment, safety, quality, etc., are suspect.

Educating the community about water use and conservation programs is an excellent way to be a socially responsible company and increase your visibility. Bristol-Myers Squibb did that as they expanded their research and development campus in Hopewell, N.J.5 By creating a comprehensive Watershed Management Program, they were able to replace 500 gallons of groundwater per day and reuse treated effluent water for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). In creating this program, the Hopewell Campus has the opportunity for further expansion by addressing the community's concerns and providing increased ecosystem benefits. With initiatives such as this one, both the community and the business win. Using your employees as communicators puts a face on your company; you become neighbors rather than the owner of the large, hulking facility in the industrial part of town.

Coca-Cola established programs in India; working with communities on rainwater harvesting programs that can help when water tables are low. But you don't have to go abroad to find opportunities. Programs such as watershed conservation allow communities to take control of their water issues. Programs are currently underway in Atlanta, Ga., where recent water shortages are leading to a potential quadrupling of water rates. 

The conversation with the public has already begun. There are numerous efforts beginning to convince the public that water isn't really "free," and that it should be cherished, or at least regarded as a resource. Seattle Public Utilities has embraced the free-market solution to this problem by instituting seasonally adjusted block-rate structures for water use.6

How should industry seize this opportunity? In addition to engaging with the community, NGOs, and your own employees, try making a priority out water reuse for agriculture. While piecemeal efforts are underway, industry could promote a nationwide collaboration between business and residential users and local farms. This program lends itself to visibility because it can be measured, providing tangible results in terms of saving water and money. As you probably know, agriculture is the largest user of water in the country. A nationwide undertaking could position industry as the solution, not the problem.

Water is the issue of the next quarter century. Your choice is to get involved now in becoming the trusted "go-to" expert, or risk playing into the hands of those who would have government take over.


  1. Mehan III, G. Tracy, "Supply of Fresh Water Dries Up," Seattle Post Intelligencer, September 30, 2003.
  2. "Coca-Cola to Resume Plant in South India," People's Daily Online, June 8, 2005.
  3. .
  4. Nalinakumari, Brijesh and MacLean, Roger; "NGOs: Organizations That Are Setting the Next Generation of 'Regulations,'" Environmental Quality Management, Summer 2005.
  5. Global Environmental Management Initiative, "Connecting The Drops Toward Creative Water Strategies,", June 2002.
  6. Mehan III, G. Tracy, "Supply of Fresh Water Dries Up," Seattle Post Intelligencer, September 30, 2003.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Merrie Spaeth is president of Spaeth Communications Inc. in Dallas. She is one of the country's premier crisis counselors and served as director of media relations for the White House under former President Reagan. She has worked in many areas of the media, including being a producer of the television program 20/20 and writing a regular column, "Words Matter," for the United Press International news service and she teaches at the Cox Business School at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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