The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires pipeline owners and operators to educate key stakeholders about pipeline operations, damage prevention, and leak recognition and response. With 2.5 million miles of local utility distribution and transmission pipelines serving more than 177 million Americans, utilities have an opportunity to leverage PHMSA requirements to engage a broad group of stakeholders in ways that build trust, maintain operational integrity, and enhance regulatory and community relationships. When natural gas utilities strategically leverage their public safety education programs, they find themselves also investing in a cost-effective operational safety initiative.
Big investments, bigger risk
The industry continues to make significant investments each year to repair and modernize the United States’ aging natural gas infrastructure. In fact, a recent American Gas Association (AGA) Playbook reported that annual industry expenditures for enhancing distribution and transmission totaled $24 billion. With some infrastructure nearly a century old, these investments are critical. At the same time, incidents resulting in damage to pipelines continue to increase. The Common Ground Alliance’s (CGA) Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) estimates that 439,000 excavation-related damages occurred in 2017, reflecting a 5.5 percent increase over 2016.
As a result, utilities are looking more closely at how they can enhance their public safety education and awareness programs. While estimates vary considerably regarding how much the industry spends on public safety awareness and education, experts agree these expenditures are a drop in the bucket compared to capital investments. The good news is that investments in these efforts are now often considered a vital part of any pipeline capital investment program. The evidence is clear: effective public education contributes to damage prevention, leak recognition, and system security and integrity. Pipeline Public Awareness is more than simply a mandated communications function; it is a key investment in utility asset protection, system integrity, and the safety, health, and security of communities/constituents being served by utilities.
Proving the value of something that never happened
Excavation incidents cause nearly 60 percent of utility distribution pipeline damages. Given the proximity of the public to natural gas infrastructure, a considerable risk exists for many more than just those who come into unsafe contact with pipelines. Today, some utilities are looking beyond risk and seeing opportunities. Like a neighborhood watch organization for crime, they see the public’s pipeline proximity as a way to expand the number of individuals capable of identifying and reporting problems or suspicious activities. When they are thoughtfully conceived and implemented, natural gas public safety engagement programs can drive desired behavior and are relatively fast and inexpensive to implement.
How to access hard-to-reach audiences
Selective attention is human nature. Audiences experience messaging fatigue and tend to pay attention to only what’s top of mind. So, how do natural gas pipeline operators ensure the at-risk public knows they live and work near a pipeline?
When polling members of the public who live and work near a pipeline, we discovered that on average six out of ten of them knew they were located near it. Younger individuals are even less likely to know this. However, as any utility being audited can attest, “America’s youth are hard to reach” is not a defensible explanation, especially if an accident happens. Regulators demand proof that utilities are making a concerted effort to improve the reach and impact of safety awareness programs.
Regular communication remains key to increasing proximity awareness as well as perceived topic relevance. In fact, the more communication someone recalls, the more likely the individual is to demonstrate knowledge of natural gas leak recognition as well as pipeline proximity. Furthermore, individuals who remember natural gas safety communications are more likely to exhibit other safe behaviors. For example, they show greater awareness of the Call Before You Dig program, and they demonstrate significantly greater knowledge about how to respond if they suspect a leak.
Increasing communication value by increasing relevance
Research proves that stakeholders value the safety information their utilities send them. Because mandated public awareness initiatives provide a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to how these campaigns are executed, utilities can gain substantial value by delivering branded communication and strategically tailoring safety messaging, visuals, channels, frequency, and timing to better reach target audiences. In addition, each utility can integrate its unique value proposition into its outreach program, further strengthening the link between the utility’s brand and its commitment to public safety.
Successful utilities are strategic about getting the word out
Utilities have long relied on—and indeed are ordered by regulators to use—bill inserts to communicate important natural gas safety information and warnings. However, limiting outreach to the mandated bare minimum is ineffective and opens the door to criticism from pundits, regulators, and intervenors. In addition, today many customers opt to go paperless and don’t even receive traditional bills or inserts. That is why utilities are also using additional mail-based solutions as well as email and social media to supplement their bill insert communications.
Some advocates insist that utilities need to modernize and migrate primarily or exclusively to digital media to attract and retain the attention of millennials. The reality is, however, that utilities who fail to utilize a strategic blend of traditional and digital channels receive lackluster results. There is no one-size-fits-all channel for communicating safety to millennials or any other stakeholder segment. Research shows that singular digital or traditional outreach methods are less successful in capturing stakeholder attention because targeted audiences are diverse, not monolithic.
Interestingly, the United States Post Office found that nearly 50 percent of all millennials check their (physical) mailboxes daily and look forward to it. This is not to say they don’t value digital communication; it means leveraging multiple channels and using a thoughtful approach are essential for ensuring engagement with utility safety messaging for any audience.
Targeting audiences not expressly identified in regulatory mandates can also deliver highly successful outcomes. For example, school-age children do not seem to represent a typical stakeholder group for regulated communications. However, the impact of utility school safety education programs has proven to be measurably effective because students and their teachers are trusted information ambassadors for parents, guardians, and other family members.
Several US utilities offer comprehensive outreach programs that target students with important safety content using print and digital materials. These programs produce some noteworthy results: Culver Company’s school program benchmark database reveals that for every teacher material request, 150 or more students are reached over the course of a year. These students gain valuable safety knowledge, as demonstrated by significant increases in their knowledge about utility public safety.
Further research demonstrates that caregivers of these students are highly engaged in these programs and also show a greater awareness of the safety messaging. This produces a multiplier effect, with teachers, students, and the adults in students’ families becoming engaged with utility public safety awareness messaging.
While utilities and regulators work diligently to enhance the safety of natural gas pipeline systems, they often overlook the additional operational value gained by also integrating investments in pipeline public safety awareness and damage prevention education into their infrastructure programs.
While these education programs often cost relatively little compared to capital projects, they favorably impact safety knowledge and behaviors. They can be implemented relatively quickly, provide the public with vital information to identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations, and protect pipeline infrastructure investments. In essence, a knowledgeable and engaged public serves as additional eyes and ears that can safely help utilities identify or avoid potentially hazardous situations.
In addition, when utility safety communications have been properly brand aligned, these programs enhance the reputation of the utility as a trusted and valued community partner. Research demonstrates that the public expects utilities to communicate safety information and that when utilities meet these expectations, both their public image and the perception of their value to the community benefit.
About Culver Company
Culver Company brings more than 40 years of experience working with leading utility companies nationwide. Our clients gain access to a powerful and diverse team of professionals with the technical expertise, industry insight, and strategic experience to help organizations meet their goals.
Culver Company maintains an industry leadership position because we customize our services to each utility’s unique goals, regulatory environment, and at-risk public profile to move beyond compliance and hone a utility’s existing public safety culture. Our team takes a strategic approach to help evaluate your company’s strengths and identify areas of improvement. We have the experience, know-how, and data to help evolve your public safety program to the next level to ultimately mitigate risk while adding value to your public image and financial health.