December 09, 2015

What Water Utilities Can Learn From the Donald Trump Phenomenon

trump

No one can really say how long the Donald Trump presidential campaign will last. If you told most veteran journalists or political junkies a year ago that Trump would be a front-runner through the late summer and fall of 2015, few would believe you. But Donald Trump has certainly been successful (still polling #1 in most national polls as of the first week of December). Love him or hate him, his campaign illustrates many of our natural human biases and tendencies – either intentionally or unintentionally. Here are three prime examples that could be relevant to water utilities:

#1 – Shorter is better

Political campaigns, or at least the successful ones, are all about communication. Not all candidates communicate effectively or memorably, but Donald Trump is a clear outlier. His messages are big, simple, and memorable. While there may be other candidates who have more in-depth policy priorities or offer more detail, you can count on Trump for actually getting his point across. What will he do on immigration? Build a wall! What will he do about ISIS? Take them out! Other candidates tend to be more long winded and even someone who has been paying attention may not be able to tell you exactly what Jeb Bush or Rand Paul might do on these issues.

The truth is that when it comes to the basic need to get your message across, many water utilities make the same mistake. Most people who’ve ever received a notice of a public hearing or a door hanger from a water utility know that brevity is not always the strength of the water utility. This is not to blame utilities – there is often a lot of information that must be conveyed, and the issues utilities often want to communicate about (rate changes, water quality, irrigation restrictions, etc.) might be fairly complex. Nevertheless, if water utilities want people to remember what they have to say, it’s worth noting that in general when it comes to remembering any message, shorter is better. A study earlier this year which got quite a bit of press showed that the average adult attention span decreased to 8 seconds this year – down from 12 seconds in 2000. Even if a water utility needs to provide detailed background information the most important message must be clear enough to be grasped in 10 seconds or less. Trumpify your message – short and clear is just more memorable.

When it comes to remembering any message, shorter is better

#2 – It’s not as simple as it seems

One of the more striking claims Donald Trump has made during this presidential campaign is his ability to readily master subjects in which he has little experience. Most candidates spend hours trying to bone up on employment numbers, current foreign affairs, and health care statistics. A candidate’s background usually gives them a leg up in one area or another, but Donald Trump may be alone in his approach to debates and interviews. He makes a big deal of refusing to prepare, and generally avoids offering many specifics on his plans for most subjects (see above regarding brevity). In a September interview, after it became clear he lacked a deep understanding of the current key players in the Middle East, he refused to apologize instead claiming that, if elected, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.” He similarly has boasted that he will do more for women’s healthcare than any other candidate, and, during the riots in Baltimore this spring, that he would “fix it fast.”

While not everyone might claim the quick mastery of difficult subject matter that The Donald does, people do tend to overestimate their knowledge in subjects in which they are clear novices. Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this bias – believing you are far more skilled or have a better understanding in a topic than you actually do – can be overcome by just a bit of further exposure or education on the topic. Once someone learns a bit more, they are more likely to recognize the breadth of understanding or skill really required for mastery. For water utilities, understanding this inherent bias may help explain why it can be so difficult to get support for investment in our water systems. Your average citizen has almost no understanding of the complexity of our water system (and what it takes to maintain superior water service), but the less they know the more they may feel they know. More regular communication, like the kind WaterSmart offers its utility partners, can help end-customers gain greater appreciation for the value of water and offer more support to their water utility.

#3 – The more I hear it the more I like it

Lastly, Donald Trump has benefitted from, and perhaps even purposefully made great use of, another behavioral science truth: the more we hear about something the more favorably we are disposed towards it. This finding confirms the old saying that there is no such thing as bad press. Called the “mere-exposure effect,” this innate bias means that regardless of the context, we like things more just by having been exposed to them more. A quick look at media mentions over the summer shows the way that the mere exposure effect could have catapulted Trump into first place in the polls. A look at more recent media mentions shows a sharp decline in Trump coverage compared to the rest of the candidates, and a decline in his lead in the polls. The desire to remain in the headlines may help explain some of Trump’s more recent extremes, such as his call for banning all Muslim visitors to the US. The backlash from proposing increasingly extreme ideas may pose other problems for Trump, but for a while he may believe the press outweighs the risk.

Water utilities should take this to heart. For many utilities, providing clean, reliable drinking water without ever attracting the attention of the community has long been a recipe for success. But the less that the average person ever hears about its water utility, the less favorable they may feel towards it. In addition to having a clear, succinct message that helps individuals understand a bit more about their water utility, it may also just be important to make sure we are getting a message out frequently to further build good will. A newsletter once a year? Great, but a friendly, easy-to-understand email or text message once a month is better. A fate Trump may be desperately trying to avoid, you don’t want to find yourself out of sight and out of mind.

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