When the water company gets it, you know social has gone mainstream…

If anyone in your company is telling you that social media marketing is just for technology companies, or techno wizzes or high tech, and not appropriate for B2B, don’t just tell them that they are behind the times — show them an example of the most “drab” of industries that have embraced today’s social environment: The Washington, DC Water and Sewer Department.

Social is today’s culture — it’s how we interact. Many 20 and 30 somethings are going to take a picture of a pothole and post it on Twitter instead of calling and reporting it. They might not call customer service about a bad product experience — but they will tweet about it! They also won’t write you a letter when they had an enjoyable experience, but they might share a picture on Flickr or talk about their experience on Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s not optional. It’s how people communicate today.

One organization that gets it is the DC Water and Sewer Authority – recently rebranded as “DC Water.” Now, if anyone was not supposed to “get it” it’s the water company, particularly in a city that has had decades of urban problems and a bad reputation (trust me, I grew up hearing about DC as a Washington native), but has been making significant improvements in the last several years.

When I first saw this rebranding I was shocked and amazed. I decided to interview Alan Heymann, DC Water’s Director of Public Affairs, who was extremely responsive — one of the cardinal rules in social media — and thoughtful.

Worth noting that Alan Heymann, who is in charge of social media efforts is the Director of Public Affairs, holds a journalism degree from Northwestern, and a law degree from George Washington University. They aren’t leaving their social media efforts to some unpaid intern, but recognizing its strategic importance as an integral part of their overall communications strategy.

TCG: Why a re-branding effort? Why does the water company need to rebrand itself?

Alan Heymann (DC Water): Under new management since last October under General Manager George Hawkins, the Authority is undergoing many changes in an effort to be more transparent, accountable and accessible to its customers. The new name and logo are a simpler way to explain what we do, and a friendlier, more approachable look. The old name and logo served us well for 14 years, but had a very hard industrial feel. The word “WASA” is not intuitive, but everyone understands and depends on water. On the drinking water distribution side, the sewer side, the wastewater treatment side, everything we do is about water.

TCG: What made you decide to be active on social media? If someone has a problem with the water company, wouldn’t they just call a help line? What benefits have you seen?

Alan: Government agencies and utilities can learn much from the corporate world about keeping in touch with customers. I’m a former reporter, and I think there are many parallels between the fragmentation of the news viewing audience and the fragmentation of the means of customer feedback. Our customer service lines see about 800 calls a day, and that will always be an important channel. But if you’re on your way to work, spot a fire hydrant in disrepair and don’t want to make a phone call, firing off a tweet with a picture makes a lot of sense. It also helps us assess the situation – in a way a phone call can’t – before we even send a crew. Twitter has also been a great way for us to send out work zone information, and for customers to report clogged catch basins.

Customers can also email us, and we have a special email account for suggestions to the General Manager’s office. We do respond. But I think about my 21-year-old sister-in-law, who doesn’t even use email. We communicate by Facebook. So DC Water needs to meet the audience where it is. This is especially important because about 15 million people use our product every year, but only about 130,000 customers receive a bill. We have to be creative about reaching out to the rest.

To that end, we also actively track blog mentions and respond. Bloggers are somewhere between conventional media reporters and customers who simply speak with a louder voice. It’s important for us to watch what they’re saying about us because they tend to represent a group of people. In fact, I’m convening our first-ever bloggers’ roundtable with the General Manager this evening.

TCG: How integrated is your social media efforts with the rest of your marketing and public affairs?

Alan: It is absolutely integrated. I am the director of public affairs and our main social media guy, but my entire team contributes to our online efforts. The General Manager also has a blog. We tailor our messages for different platforms (from a complex, printed annual report all the way down to 140 characters on Twitter), but are actually communicating with different segments of the same audience. I’m always mindful of short attention spans – as mine is too!

TCG: How do you determine what content to offer, create, and distribute?

Alan: Content planning and development for the online platforms is actually pretty similar to what we do for print or promotional materials. A member of my staff, a customer or someone else on Team Blue will come up with an idea, and we figure out whether it’s feasible and how to pull it off. We try to update Twitter multiple times a day, Facebook once a day, the banners on our homepage once a week, and do a new mini-video once a month.

I’m also aware that a good portion of our staff – whom the General Manager affectionately calls Team Blue – uses social media. My department produces an internal newsletter, but our Facebook posts and Flickr galleries are especially popular among the staff because they can see themselves and share with friends and family. If we have a staff event, such as last week’s annual Safety Day, we now have the ability to give everyone access to all the pictures instead of just putting a few in the newsletter. We also have a little Flip camera for this sort of thing.

TCG: What was the planning process involved? How long did it take between deciding to go on various channels and your actual launch?

Alan: This process is still ongoing. We’ve had some great interaction with our IT department on the more technical things – such as how to get our automated workzone updates to feed into Twitter, and getting blogs past the web filters at the office. But the beauty of online social media is that they don’t require a high degree of technical expertise, so they’re fantastically easy to launch once you know how you want to use them. My staff actually had the Facebook page queued up and ready to go before I started this job in January, and were simply waiting for someone to say go. Naturally, I said go. Our fan base exploded when the General Manager was the subject of a New York Times profile earlier this year that actually mentioned the Facebook page. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that old and new media still interact on a regular basis.

TCG: Thanks, Alan. And I encourage our readers to connect with DC Water on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.


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