Damian Wells: 3 leadership tips on Covid-19 communications
Utilities Coronavirus Covid-19 Australasia and Pacific

Damian Wells: 3 leadership tips on Covid-19 communications

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Bringing together a utility incident management team

Damian Wells, the managing director of Australian water provider Coliban Water, has been praised for his proactive efforts in reorganising the utility as well as proactive communications during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an Aquatech Online article headlined ‘How water utilities are communicating on Covid-19’, the utility was referenced for its frequent and transparent communication.

In an online video interview, Wells said: “Australia saw what was happening first in China, and then more recently in Europe and now the US. This made us think wow, what are we going to do here in Australia?”

He referenced Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria and the chief health officer, Dr Brett Sutton, who gave a press conference that announced the planning for “school closures and various economic impacts”. "At that point, I knew that this was real and the impacts were going to be deeply felt across the Victorian economy and community in which Coliban Water operates,” he said.

Three tips for water utility leaders

The next day the managing director set up an incident management team, quickly putting in place a plan for team rostering, scenario planning as well as defining the messaging for the Coliban Water community.

“Very early on we were surprised by the panic buying and stores running out of toilet paper, and other goods such as flour and rice,” he added.

“What surprised me was bottled water supplies running out. We knew we had to put out messages early detailing the safety of drinking water from the potable drinking water plants we run. So we started this message early.”

In an exclusive video interview with Aquatech Online, Wells highlights his three top tips for water utility leaders when it comes to communication during the pandemic (video below).

Serving 49 towns, with populations ranging from a dozen people right up to 100,000, water utility Coliban Water is north of Melbourne, serving the Victoria region in Australia.

Wells said the Coliban Water workforce is now operating nearly 97 per cent remotely, which presents its challenges and "needed to stand up in terms of IT implementation in a short timeframe”.

He also acknowledged the additional support that will be required for his team.

“We’re putting out a lot of advice to our people about wellness,” he adds. “Mental health is going to be a key challenge in any period of extended lockdown, especially with a lack of social connection. We want to support our people through that.”

Using social media for positive communications

The managing director has been actively using social media platforms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, to amplify the core messaging from Coliban Water.

This included reassuring suppliers on LinkedIn that it would be paying all outstanding invoices within five to seven days to help “support the local economy”. This resulted in AUD1.36 million in payments.

Wells also announced that he would donate 20 per cent of his salary to a food donation programme.

“Social media plays a really important role during a crisis,” he said. “It helps utility leaders communicate in a timely manner. I’ve adopted the view that leaders who have a direct voice with community are more trusted.

“I feel there’s an opportunity that if you’re well connected on social media, including with journalists, then you can use your voice to put a message out there and it can make its way to those that need it.”

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