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In March 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly isolated in China and parts of Europe, my partner and I flew to the Dominican Republic to escape the Canadian winter. But as we enjoyed our sunny getaway, the world began to crumble: Professional sports leagues closed, air travel was restricted, and flight cancellations began as the COVID-19 virus was discovered. in North America and elsewhere.
Shortly after returning to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a provincial state of emergency was announced that closed schools and shut down all non-essential services, businesses and institutions. The ripple effect throughout the community was immediate, as almost everything was shut down except for these essential services, including the city’s water, wastewater and stormwater systems. In fact, access to these essential services has become more important than ever to maintain public health, ensure proper hygiene and sanitation, and protect the environment.
As the situation changed rapidly, Halifax Water quickly assured its customers that the critical water, wastewater and stormwater services they relied on would not be interrupted. Shortly after the state of emergency was announced, the utility issued a Public Service Announcement (PSA) outlining immediate supportive measures such as postponing payments, eliminating interest on accounts overdue, waiver of denied payment charges, and suspension of unpaid service disconnections. This post (Figure 1) was the first of many that would soon follow.
Halifax Water has used several methods to communicate with its customers. A COVID-19 “Alert” feature has been set up on the utility’s website, www.halifaxwater.ca, and all information specific to COVID-19 has been posted there. Halifax Water also posted information on its social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter). Local media have regularly received public service announcements describing the public service’s services and programs. In addition, regular talks were held at various facilities to help the media, and therefore customers, understand the operational challenges the utility faced in keeping essential services running. City councilors were kept informed of utility operations and programs, and employees were regularly briefed on developments.
Halifax Water has even branded its entire vehicle fleet with social distancing messages. The goal was to assure all customers (residential and commercial) that Halifax Water was there for them. To help spread the message further, several graphics were created and posted on the utility’s social media accounts (Figure 2). Getting high priority messages out quickly is important, but the “shoot and forget” approach is not enough during a pandemic. It is essential to maintain a constant and consistent flow of messages to customers. Being open and transparent in a state of emergency is also essential in helping to build and maintain customer support.
Just as important as getting information out to customers quickly, it was just as important to let employees know how the situation was developing, how it might affect them and their families, and how the public service would support them throughout the process. pandemic. Several “Special Editions” of the internal employee journal, Pipeline post, were created to help keep staff informed of rapidly evolving circumstances. The Halifax Water management team also met with staff regularly, either virtually or physically remotely. Employees are the best ambassadors of a public service because they interact with customers on a daily basis.
Personal protective equipment and other safety gear were purchased to help staff operate as transmission of COVID-19 was a serious concern. High visibility physical distancing stickers were quickly designed and purchased for staff to apply to their helmets and all work vehicles, providing excellent mobile notice boards to help spread the safety message throughout. the community.
Adding a twist to the communications challenge, in February 2020, before having any idea of the local impact COVID-19 would have on customers and the utility, Halifax Water filed a general tariff request with its regulator. , asking for an increase in water and waste water prices. With the pandemic outbreak in March, the timing of the public tariff hearing, scheduled for June 2020, was far from ideal. Asking for a rate increase at a time when many customers were struggling financially has put Halifax Water in a difficult position, requiring a communications hub amid the pandemic.
The Halifax Water management team reviewed the pricing request with a focus on how best to support customers while ensuring the utility has the financial resources to continue to provide essential services to customers. water, wastewater and stormwater. Updated messages, graphics and communication materials have been gathered and released. The post was a testament to Halifax Water’s awareness of the issues customers face and how the utility would continue to help them (Figure 3).
The updated pricing request, which was approved by the Halifax Water regulator in August 2020, saw no increase in water tariffs for fiscal years 2020/2021 and 2021/2022; no increase in overall wastewater rates in 2020/2021; and an increase in wastewater treatment and use fees that came into effect on April 1, 2021. To support this positive pricing decision, the utility once again updated its messages (Figure 4), published information on its website and social media accounts and conducted numerous media interviews. .
Learn from experience
A global pandemic hasn’t caught the world in living memory, so there was no communications manual to pull off the shelf. But there are some basic communication principles that can be applied to form the basis of how you contact your customers in the event of an event or crisis. As members of the AWWA Public Affairs Committee frequently remind their colleagues, the first time a customer hears from you shouldn’t be in a crisis or a rate hike.
It is vital for utilities to communicate regularly with their customers in a clear and open manner. If your customers are used to hearing from you, you’ll have a much better chance of receiving their support when you need it most, and you can continue to support them when they need you most.