In the face of California’s crippling drought, public agencies will have to employ wide-ranging strategies and tactics to educate, motivate, enforce, and reinforce messages about drastic water cutbacks.
Their success or failure hinges on how they communicate to diverse audiences about managing water, a precious natural resource. In their dilemma, there are also lessons for PR professionals.
On Tuesday, California’s State Water Resources Board said residents used 13.5% less water against an April 2013 benchmark. This is a significant improvement over previous months, but it also shows a major gap in achieving the mandatory average 25% reduction in urban water use ordered by California Governor Jerry Brown.
The drought has generated thousands of media stories and an unending stream of tweets and posts and sparked intense debate on what needs to be done. Water agencies, city managers, and other local elected officials will have to make major decisions, large and small, about how to urge residents to use much less, and conserve much more, water.
In this highly charged atmosphere, carefully developed communication strategies will be essential to get the public informed and accepting of the solutions required. Organizations will have to engage from the top down at the state level to coordinate messages and from the bottom up at the local level to make relevant, persuasive arguments. With that in mind, here are four things that must happen:
1. State-level authorities must consistently communicate the need for cooperation through a coordinated, systematic, and statewide approach. California, famous for its combative local water interests, needs to hear steady, unified messages delivered from the top. Already, state regulators that manage water are beginning to coordinate. Earlier this year, the California Urban Water Conservation Council worked with the state’s Department of Water Resources and several other water interests to organize a series of workshops to help water agencies understand the drought and a new water-rate structure. More statewide efforts calling for a message of shared responsibility to curb water use on a large scale will be required.
2. Local water interests must develop their own communications programs that appeal to the residents and water users in the jurisdictions. Under orders by the state to make dramatic water cuts, local water agencies are employing strategies that include removing lawns, fining residents for overuse, and providing free home inspections for unseen water leaks. At the same time, local water interests would be wise to localize the potential negative outcomes of water waste and communicate the human impacts.
3. Authorities overseeing water reduction must speak with culturally appropriate voices to residents from diverse backgrounds. No single racial or ethnic group forms a majority of California's population. Non-Hispanic whites make up more than 40% of the population. Areas such as Los Angeles and San Diego have large Spanish-speaking populations. Communicators will have to take great care to ensure that messages engage and empower diverse audiences. Hearing messages from respected figures of authority – local personalities, elected officials, and subject-matter experts – will also lead to greater impact.
4. Finally, local water interests will succeed from a grassroots approach that aims to be informative rather than punitive. Local water agencies should communicate on the neighborhood level the need and urgency of curbing water use. The practice of snitching on neighbors, or "drought shaming," should be a tactic of last resort. Even celebrities such as past drought-shaming target Barbra Streisand are taking up drought and water-reduction awareness on social media and through public service announcements.
Eventually the rain and snow will fall. California will experience relief from this prolonged and painful drought. In the meantime, the drought is all but certain to result in future water policy, lifestyle, and societal changes. To what extent California’s lawmakers rewrite future rules hinges on how the state’s water users change behavior and habits now.
As California has done on other issues such as energy, healthcare, and education, the state has the opportunity to model a progressive problem-solving strategy. Impactful communications, thoughtfully implemented, will play a critical role in the success of that strategy. Lessons abound for PR professionals everywhere.
Patrick George is a director at KP Public Affairs, a PR and lobbying firm based in California.