California’s Drought is a Communications and Policy Issue

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

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 communications lessons.

On Tuesday, California’s State Water Resources Board said residents used 13.5 percent 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 percent 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.

State-level authorities must consistently communicate the need for cooperation through a coordinated, systematic and statewide approach.  Local water interests must develop their own communication programs that appeal to the residents and water users in the jurisdictions. Authorities overseeing water reduction must speak with culturally appropriate voices to residents from diverse backgrounds. Finally, local water interests will succeed from a grassroots approach that aims to be informative rather than punitive.

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.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

irector at KP Public Affairs, a PR and lobbying firm based in California

Water guzzlers would be punished under state proposal

As reported by the SF Chronicle:

California officials seeking to cut urban water use by 25 percent amid the punishing drought said Tuesday that the best way to get the job done is to spread the hurt unevenly, slapping the biggest guzzling communities with mandatory cuts up to 35 percent.

This means leafy towns on the Peninsula and a handful of faraway suburbs, where tall trees hover and big lawns rule, would have to make the Bay Area’s largest concessions. The plan is to go easier on places like San Francisco that already consume relatively little water on a per capita basis.

While warm Southern California enclaves such as Palm Springs and Beverly Hills, alongside Central Valley cities like Bakersfield, dominate the state’s list of heavy water users, Northern California spots such as Hillsborough, Atherton, Portola Valley, Woodside and Menlo Park also rank high in per capita water use. Consequently, they would be targeted for the strictest cuts on the state’s proposed 10- to 35-percent sliding scale of reductions.

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