Many of us would prefer to avoid awkward conversations if we can. We turn evasive when our children ask us, “Where do babies come from?” At a party, someone asks about the presidential candidates and most people go into full-on fudge mode. Stalling, evading and dissembling are seen as preferable to having a conversation that makes us uncomfortable.
The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, holds valuable communications lessons for electric and gas utilities. Typically, utility executives are reluctant to discuss with customers the need to invest in infrastructure, because that brings on the discussion of price increases. It’s awkward, it’s negative, it’s a sleeping dog we should let lie.
No, we shouldn’t. The water crisis in Flint is what happens when a utility doesn’t maintain its infrastructure. And there is mounting evidence the water infrastructure crisis is a national one that spreads well beyond Flint.
Leave aside all the political finger-pointing, of which there is plenty. Forget partisan politics if you can. Overlook the special conditions, such as the city of Flint being in receivership. Ignore claims of racism. At its core, the Flint water crisis is a story of a utility placing its customers at risk because it didn’t do its most basic job: maintain its infrastructure.