Why is public communication key to successful lead projects?

Why is public communication key to successful lead projects?
Communities across the U.S. are tackling the challenge of lead in drinking water. As water utilities plan to develop inventories, home and school sampling programs and lead service line replacements, they must keep one crucial element in mind: public communication. The number of stakeholders involved in lead programs requires utilities to rethink their typical methods of educating and engaging as they prioritize public health.

Autumn McNeill, MPH is an envi­ron­men­tal planner focused on community engagement and outreach. Autumn provides public health analysis and commu­ni­ca­tions for lead, PFAS and other envi­ron­men­tal topics with an emphasis on envi­ron­men­tal justice and health equity. In this article, she explains the importance of keeping an open line of commu­ni­ca­tion with the public when tackling lead projects.

What is the connection between public education and public health?

It is crucial to connect public education and public health. Community members need to understand the purpose of different lead-related projects and the science behind them. When it comes to public messaging, commu­ni­ca­tion must be digestible and frequent, and experts need to allow stake­hold­ers to ask any necessary questions. Being responsive to these questions and keeping an open line of commu­ni­ca­tion with the public is paramount for water utilities, and public education to explain the why, the how, and the where do we go from here? We always want to be moving forward.

In areas impacted by lead, how can effective commu­ni­ca­tion promote envi­ron­men­tal justice and health equity?

Educating the public always comes first. Many stake­hold­ers know envi­ron­men­tal issues exist, but they may not know the causes behind these issues or how to communicate them to their government officials effectively. Awareness is not the concern, revealing the why is. Effective commu­ni­ca­tion allows for open commu­ni­ca­tion. When we circulate resources to teach the public about lead programs, we are always eager for input and feedback. Sometimes, that feedback is pushback, and that is okay, and clear and concise messaging allows utilities to level-set with residents. For example, in cases of service line replace­ments that require more involved infra­struc­ture work, utilities need to educate properly and often, and educational material needs to be digestible and actionable. Proper commu­ni­ca­tion provides stake­hold­ers with a sense of security to not only ask their questions but to also allow utilities to do the replace­ments.

public education documents

How do you tailor commu­ni­ca­tion methods to your audience? 

The effec­tive­ness of a commu­ni­ca­tion and public education method depends drastically on your target audience. Each community of stake­hold­ers has different social and cultural norms that will impact how they absorb information. In general terms, Gen Z loves social media and if they are the target audience that is the way to go. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are great ways to connect with that age group. Older generations such as the Baby Boomers are known to appreciate more in person meetings, and more physical commu­ni­ca­tion methods such as flyers. Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic however, many now opt for a hybrid option when it comes to their commu­ni­ca­tions like Zoom calls for instance. A great way to determine the commu­ni­ca­tion preferences of a group is to simply ask. Some utilities actually track their commu­ni­ca­tion metrics to determine how to reach their stake­hold­ers so that is a great starting point.

Why are you passionate about what you do?

My passion for envi­ron­men­tal commu­ni­ca­tions started at my alma mater, Howard University. I was always very passionate about the environment- at the time, I was studying biology and sociology, and I really saw that my community, at least the African American community, has connections to the environment, but a lot of us aren’t as educated as we would like to be on envi­ron­men­tal justice and envi­ron­men­tal racism. At Howard, I worked on projects focused on communities impacted by water cont­a­m­i­na­tion, gentri­fi­ca­tion, food disparities and more. 

In 2020, I went to the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, where I really honed into my love for commu­ni­ca­tion, but also for public health, and the health of people in general in envi­ron­men­tal cases. That is how I landed at CDM Smith working as an envi­ron­men­tal planner in the Water Services Group. I work with a lot of lead in drinking water and lead service line replacement programs because it is a huge part of educating people, while ensuring envi­ron­men­tal justice is at the forefront and addressing envi­ron­men­tal racism. I am doing what I love to do while helping communities that deserve repre­sen­ta­tion and service. 

Autumn McNeil Autumn McNeil
I'm doing what I love to do while helping communities that deserve repre­sen­ta­tion and service.
Autumn McNeill, MPH Environmental Planner
Newark NJ water filters Newark NJ water filters
Talk to an expert
Have public education or outreach questions? Connect with our communications team to start developing a comprehensive program today.

See our lead in drinking water work