CAMPAIGNS: Community Relations - Customers key in HPUD PR cleanup

Client: Hallsdale Powell Utility District (Knoxville, TN)
PR Team: Ackermann PR (Knoxville, TN)
Campaign: Building A Bridge Back to the Community
Time Frame: December 2000 - ongoing
Budget: $50,000

Hallsdale Powell Utility District (HPUD) needed to hose off its reputation. The water utility had seen its standing with the Tennessee community it served suffer dramatically. It had failed to upgrade its infrastructure as the quiet rural community it served blossomed into an affluent suburban landscape, and was feeling the fallout in the form of very dissatisfied customers.

"They were receiving hate mail, says Dan Hurst, account executive at Ackermann PR.

The bad feelings between HPUD and its customers climaxed when a contractor hired by HPUD to build a hilltop water tower felled trees on private property, and transported heavy machinery across private lawns in order to access the work zone. To make matters worse, whenever it rained over the work zone, it became a mud slide resulting in yards, pets, and children caked in mud. Area homes sustained damages totaling tens of thousands of dollars.

HPUD hired a new GM who saw that he had a serious PR problem on his hands.

He turned to a local firm, Ackermann PR, to help restore HPUD's image.

Strategy

Ackermann held a communications summit with a very influential group of HPUD management members and constituents to identify the major PR issues facing the organization. Beyond the Ackermann team, the summit included HPUD's commissioners, the GM, HPUD's consulting attorney, and managers from two neighboring utility districts.

"We wanted to get input from all the major in-house people before we went to the customers, says Hurst.

After the summit and a media audit, the Ackermann team helped devise three goals for the HPUD campaign: restore confidence in the community that HPUD provides high-quality water and wastewater services at the lowest possible cost; position HPUD as a modern, progressive utility district that utilizes technology to deliver superior products and strong customer service; and rebuild the trust between HPUD and the community.

Tactics

One of Ackermann's first recommendations was to develop a new logo to help modernize HPUD's image. HPUD's new logo was designed to present a more modern image than the 1950s-era Willie Water character used since HPUD's inception.

In addition, Ackermann created a new tagline, "Great water for our growing communities, to convey HPUD's quality products, and that the utility plays an important role in the area's economic development.

"We didn't want anything too flashy. We just wanted to bring the logo up to date, says Hurst. "We also wanted a tagline that focused on economic growth of the community."

Ackermann then decided to create a newsletter to inform the community about all the positive changes going on at HPUD. The newsletter highlighted such things as the technology used to improve water and wastewater service, and the various awards it had won during its push to improve its technology. The newsletter also included a Q&A section, pictures and profiles of staff members, and news about the extensive infrastructure upgrades that were taking place within the community.

The firm also developed the idea of the Beaver Creek Environmental Learning Center, which is a conservation camp for grades K-5. The learning center teaches students about the important role water plays in the environment.

Ackermann also decided that HPUD should come up with a representative body that would serve as a conduit between the utility and its community.

The community advisory board would advise the utility on critical issues, especially as they related to the utility's customers. Ackermann worked with the utility to recommend the ideal composition of the board, which included residential customers, business customers, media representatives, and other community leaders.

Results

"It's difficult to quantify the results of the campaign, says Hurst.

"But HPUD headquarters now has a lobby full of award plaques, and regularly gets appreciation instead of the hate mail it was receiving."

Ackermann has seen HPUD receive numerous community awards and public endorsements from groups such as the American Water Works Association, Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation, and Knox County, TN.

And in a published report, HPUD was recognized as having the second-lowest utility rates in the region.

Future

Nearly all aspects of the campaign are ongoing.

"HPUD plans to continue with the campaign, says Hurst. "I think HPUD provides a great example of community outreach."

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