Communicating effectively during a sanitary sewer crisis

Galen Heinrichs
Infrastructure Systems Engineer
City of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

In the public works industry the best indication that you are doing a good job is that nobody notices what you are doing. Providing an uninterrupted essential utility service is what the business is all about and the fact that few people notice or comment is taken as a compliment. However, when a storm overwhelms sewers and causes property damage, public and media attention instantly focuses on this forgotten system and immediate answers and quick solutions are demanded from this formerly silent audience. Such a request for instant action is problematic since properly assessing causes and providing effective solutions is often a lengthy and complicated process. Although it may seem prudent to take ample time for an assessment and then quietly fix what needs fixing, silence following any crisis is the worst choice that can be made because the community is anxiously waiting for information. The challenge is how to communicate effectively and provide good information and honest answers.

On June 29, 2005 the City of Saskatoon experienced a prolonged rain event that overwhelmed the sanitary sewer system with rainwater. The storm and sanitary sewer systems in Saskatoon are completely separate and, although the storm sewer system performed very well, large trunk segments of the sanitary sewer system were flooded causing severe sanitary sewer backups in some homes. Additionally, the rainstorm was significant enough to cause other basement flooding problems including seepage and weeping tile overflows. The storm and the flooding it caused instantly became one of the hot media and political items of the summer.

When a utility is faced with a crisis of this nature, effective communication is not a simple task. In general, the public, politicians and media are uninformed about the operation of sewer systems and often do not understand basic plumbing concepts. Misinformation abounds, tempers of some residents run high, and everyone wants to know what caused the flooding as well as what actions are being taken to prevent it from happening again. Although it is very easy to become completely absorbed in the specific details of the crisis, it is important to step back and look at the big picture. It is imperative to understand and address the large-scale communication issues that affect the entire situation.

#1 - Recognize that the credibility of the utility is tarnished and needs to be restored.
The public generally expects utilities to operate flawlessly. When the sanitary sewer fails to remove sewage or, worse yet, operates in a reverse fashion, the public's perception of the utility and of the people operating the utility abruptly changes from complacency to mistrust and even hostility. It is important to understand that whether or not the utility actually did anything wrong matters very little. The expectation of flawless service has not been met and this has caused a trust to be damaged. It is imperative to instill confidence in the public that you know what you are doing and that you are doing it effectively and efficiently. It is also your responsibility to place the crisis in its proper perspective with the media as they will report only on the crisis.

#2 - Let your audience know that you understand.
The public must know that you understand the loss suffered and understand that a perceived expectation was not met. Losing possessions to a flood is an unexpected and traumatic experience. Cleaning up after a flood is hard, dirty work. At the very least, victims of a flood want their loss acknowledged. You should not minimize their loss by stating that the flooding was not very bad or that this is not the worst flooding the city has seen. A communication plan that does not convey some degree of empathy to the people affected will not be well received.

#3 - Understand that your audience is afraid and is looking to you for assurance.
They are afraid that a similar flood may happen again—maybe even next week. They want to know what is being done to protect them from experiencing this again. The perception may exist that homes that were spared will not be lucky next time. When these types of fear exist it is imprudent to simply say that a flood event this large is unlikely to recur or that there is no way to stop a flood this big. Statistics about flood intervals and design standards will not answer the fear behind the questions that are being asked. Most people understand that risk exists but they also understand that risk can be reduced for any type of event. They want to know what is being done by the utility to reduce risk and what they can do themselves to increase preparedness so they are not surprised again.

#4 - Timing is everything.
Every communication initiative has an invisible deadline after which it loses its usefulness. If the punch line of a joke comes five minutes too late, it simply isn't funny. When you receive a birthday gift, the meaning of a thank-you card is lost if it is sent a year later. After a flood your audience is waiting for you to speak and invisible communication deadlines automatically develop. If you do not meet them, your message will not be effective and may even have the opposite effect. The public expects an immediate statement (within 24 hours or less of the crisis) to let them know the extent of the event and some preliminary details. Provide updates as new information is available so the audience will know what actions will be taken to protect them. As more time passes communication deadlines become less frequent and less urgent. Put yourself in the shoes of a homeowner affected by a flood and ask how much time could elapse before the previous communication has lost its impact. If you were to wait until winter to release information about a spring flood your message would be ridiculed and your department would appear incompetent. Recognize that although deadlines are difficult to precisely define, they definitely exist and it is always better to get your message out earlier than later.

#5 - Develop an action plan quickly.
The time for thorough analysis and meticulously engineered plans will come but there are always some initial actions you can commit to. A timeline for long-term investigations can be established. Designate a spokesperson and communicate your information quickly. Do not overdo it by jumping to conclusions or making promises you will not be able to keep but recognize that a fast and honest initial response is the best way to answer the first four issues listed above. This strategy is timely, establishes credibility, will alleviate some fears, and is the best way to let people know that you care about what happened to them.

#6 - Have a communication plan.
In addition to the action plan (which looks after the technical details) you also need a communication plan that maps out your strategy for communicating with the public. Include the purpose, timing, and vehicle for communication for all announcements. Use standard and established methods first such as press releases, news conferences and newspaper bulletins. Also, consider new methods that may not have been previously used by your department. This would be a good time to start that web page on basement flooding or print those brochures that people occasionally ask for. You need a plan to tell people the steps you are taking, just as much as you need your own plan of action.

#7 - Technical language is for technicians.
Every profession has words, phrases and acronyms that have meaning within their community but are not understood by outsiders. These terms offer an efficient means of communicating elaborate concepts with other technicians in the same field but in the general population these same terms may not be comprehensible or, worse yet, may have different meanings or connotations. When communicating with someone outside your profession, always use the dictionary they understand—not the dictionary you understand. Whether you are crafting messages for a media release or talking on the phone, be aware of the words you are using and ensure that if a definition is not known that you provide a useful definition. Effective communication can only take place when both sides are speaking the same language.

#8 - Communication is a two-way street.
While much of this communication will be at your initiative, recognize that people want you to know how they feel. They have questions they believe require answering. If you do not provide an outlet, the public will find one on themselves that may not be constructive. Having a phone line for concerns and a knowledgeable person available to answer calls is a good starting point. Public open houses are another good forum to provide two-way exchanges. It is tempting to shy away from public forums but they can have great benefit. The most important consideration is to maintain control by directing the discussion. Hire an outside moderator to manage the meeting and prepare a brief presentation to focus the discussion and provide basic information and answers. If the open house is well organized it can be one of the best communication tools available.

#9 - Keep politicians and decision makers informed.
Politicians are going to be inundated with the same questions that are swamping your utility switchboard. Usually politicians do not have the professional knowledge to answer many of the questions and they may not be directly involved in the technical decisions. It is best to be pre-emptive and keep the politicians informed. Provide them with your action and communication plans before they ask. Give them the contact name and a phone number of the person in your department they can direct inquiries to. Politicians may criticize your department if left uninformed; however, they will tend to defend your department if they have good information and can respond to the public's concerns.

#10 - A crisis always brings an opportunity.
While it is a badly overused cliche, it is true that a flood brings with it a rare occasion when the public wants to be educated about your utility. In the case of sewer systems, this occasion is rare indeed. Do not pass up the opportunity. Now is the time to let the public know about flood-proofing techniques. Educate them about protective plumbing or inform them about new policies and bylaws. Even though these issues may have always been significant, the public was likely apathetic and previous attempts at communicating may have been unsuccessful. Now that this apathy is temporarily removed, the window has been opened to educate and inform.

A crisis does not have to be a black eye that never goes away for a utility. People generally realize that there are limitations to any system and also limitations to the actions and planning that can be done. The difference in the attitude the public holds about a utility following a disaster is often not a result of what the utility has done but rather how well the utility has communicated what they have done. Remember that silence is still a form of communication and in a crisis it is the worst possible message to send. With good planning and effective communication, the reputation of the utility can survive and even improve following a disaster.

Galen Heinrichs can be reached at (306) 975-7522 or

Saskatoon is a mid-sized city located in central Saskatchewan on the South Saskatchewan River. It is the most populous city in the province of Saskatchewan, and has been since the mid-1970s. Saskatoon is known as the "City of Bridges" for its seven river crossings.