During this period of unprecedented disruption and change, it’s remarkably timely that the incoming president of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) is skilled at collaborating to build new paths forward.
Melissa Elliott, who begins her one-year presidential term July 1, has built her stellar public relations career helping utilities tell their value of water story to consumers, stakeholders and elected officials. Elliott is director of strategic communication services at Raftelis, where she consults with utilities across the United States. Prior to joining Raftelis, she directed public affairs strategies at Denver Water.
Within AWWA, Elliott has served as chair of the Public Affairs Council as well as trustee and chair of the Rocky Mountain Section, which honored her with the George Fuller Award in 2019.
With public health, economic and social crises overlapping nearly every part of our daily lives, Elliott says she’s ready to lead in a different way than she envisioned even just a few months ago.
“It’s a stressful time, but disruption can have positive outcomes because it brings opportunities to innovate, and much needed changes can happen faster than previously thought possible,” she said. “We can engage and come together in new ways.”
Photos courtesy of Melissa Elliott
Chi Ho Sham, AWWA’s incoming president-elect, said Elliott’s effectiveness as a leader is supported by her “ability to listen and evaluate other perspectives.”
“With the ever-increasing awareness of water issues among the public, Melissa’s knowledge and experience in engaging with the public will help AWWA’s efforts to strengthen public confidence in the water sector,” he added.
Following are Elliott’s thoughts regarding her upcoming year as AWWA president.
What are your key priorities? The people who belong to, volunteer for, and lead AWWA are resilient to their core and are extraordinary problem solvers. I want to tap into these strengths to help the Association adapt to what will probably become AWWA’s new way of operating. This includes ensuring we continue to provide value to our members, virtually and in person. I also will act to advance inclusion and diversity in the water sector and within our own AWWA leadership. Finally, although we’re a financially strong organization, it will be important for our Board to work with AWWA’s leadership team to provide policy direction, so we maintain our Association’s financial health.
What aspects of your career and background will you draw upon? As a public relations professional, I have spent my entire career bringing people together to build understanding and consensus. In the water sector, this means helping water and wastewater utilities tell their value story, which provides a path to advance the projects and investments they need to better serve their communities. We’ve learned during the pandemic that engagement doesn’t have to be done in person, thanks to technology and ingenuity. What hasn’t changed is the value of listening and seeking input to inform decisions, which I’ll use in my work with AWWA.
What opportunities and challenges do you think AWWA should focus on this year? Economic, public health, and social factors are likely to cause our sector’s costs to increase at a time when revenue may not. Far more people than before may be unable to pay their water and wastewater bills, and we’ll need to partner with our communities to ensure everyone has access to these services. At the same time, the public is celebrating essential workers and grasping the value that safe drinking water and wastewater treatment bring, and society is reckoning with the reality of racial inequity. AWWA is dedicated to a better world through better water. We have an opportunity to create more cost-efficient ways to provide service and to connect people who have never considered working in our sector with excellent jobs.
What unique perspectives do you bring to the role of president? I am the fourth woman to be elected AWWA president, and I can’t count how many times a young woman has reached out to me to say how excited she is to see a woman in this role. It’s obvious we need to attract a diverse mix of leaders, and we need to do that quickly. If water professionals in upcoming generations don’t see people who look like them in our leadership, they won’t stay involved as AWWA members. I was encouraged and guided by supervisors, peers and AWWA and Section leaders – both men and women – and I wouldn’t be here without them. We can all look around our workplace, or section or Association volunteer structure, and find someone who we can support.
What have you learned from working with other AWWA leaders? When you serve on the AWWA Board, you quickly realize we have the best and brightest people who make it a priority to dedicate their time to advancing our work in water. There is a core belief in the water sector that we should share information, data and best practices to help lift each other to a higher standard. Our AWWA leaders set an excellent example of that.
What attracted you to working in the water sector? When I was working as a public information officer with the City of Aurora, Colorado, we experienced a terrible drought and the city needed to act to make our dwindling water supply last until the next winter’s snowpack. I was drafted by Aurora Water to help educate residents about water conservation, and I loved how everyone came together to address this natural disaster. I was inspired by the compassion our employees had for each other and our customers. I became a permanent part of Aurora Water and then went on to Denver Water.
How did your work experience prepare you for AWWA leadership? The water sector is getting better about telling its story, but it has a long way to go. I was fortunate to be at Denver Water when leadership decided we needed to make a wholesale change. Our goal was to become the trusted source our consumers would turn to when they had a question or needed information about water. Part of my experience was bringing back to Denver Water what I learned as an AWWA volunteer so we could constantly improve. AWWA volunteers and staff were there to help me get the information I needed, whether it was regulatory changes related to lead service line replacements or communicating about the utility’s first major rate structure change in more than two decades.
Tell us about your personal interests: In July, my husband, Michael, and I will celebrate our second anniversary. We both enjoy traveling and our bucket list is long. Our most recent trip was to China last fall. Family is also important. My son is a teacher, and my parents and brother’s family all live nearby. During COVID-19, when I’m not working, I’m usually with Michael and our dog, Chloe. I’m running and hiking, and occasionally I take out my electric bike for a spin. Colorado has some serious uphill trails!