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78: Water Nerd’s Guide to Communicating to Your Customers’ Lizard Brain

Karen DeBaker serves as Communications and Marketing Manager for Clean Water Services — the water resources management utility serving more than 600,000 residents of Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed in the Portland-metro area. Karen joined Clean Water Services in 2000 and she has led the District’s marketing, communications and public education programs since 2007. Karen is chair of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association’s Leadership Development Committee and past chair of the Communication and Outreach Committee. Karen developed 11 Public Communications Camp workshops for Oregon, Washington and Idaho and formerly served as chair of the Water Environment Federation’s World Water Monitoring Day subcommittee. Prior to joining Clean Water Services, she was a publicist for book publishing companies in Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Top Takeaways

  1. We are all communicators whether it’s in your title or not.
  2. Communicate early and often whether it’s good news or bad news.
  3. We are feeling machines that think – driven by our experiences and emotions.


4:54 Tell us about the WEFTEC2019 Communications Camp and what the biggest highlights were for you.

  • Span the range of communications from crisis to social media.
  • Discussed research, storytelling and branding.
  • We are Humans first. We are all communicators.

8:38 What stood out from the case studies presented at the Comms Camp?

  • Ability to work through children to enhance communication and get your message out.
  • Opportunity to educate the community on the importance of pollution and stormwater.

12:11 What were some ah-ha moments from the camp?

  • Validation in the importance of communicating early and often, whether it’s good news or bad news.
  • Our role is to inform the community. You don’t have to have every piece of information before you speak to the community. It’s okay to offer what you have and let them know you will update when more information is available.

14:05 What does the lizard brain do when we share bad news?

  • The brain is accessing experiences and emotions.
  • The brain burns 20% of the energy your body uses. 90% of that is subconscious.
  • We are feeling machines that think. 
  • Marketing is about providing value and solving problems. Your product solves your audience’s problem and not the other way around.
  • Getting through to the lizard brain is key and takes strategy.

23:05 An example from the Comms Camp: contrasting.

  • Need to show the before and after. The with and without versions.
  • One strong message – limit the claims and benefits to three.
  • Speak with visuals to bring people in.

27:53 The Lightning Round.

  • Infinite Possibilities – Mike Dooley.
  • Take a deep breath and stop.
  • Be Human.


  • This is Marketing– Seth Godin
  • Take the Stroop Test.


If you’re a water utility looking to better manage the water you love, then you’ll want to talk to the experts at Master Meter. They understand that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Smart water management begins with accurate measurement. Account for every drop produced and delivered because utilities’ progression towards smart cities and IoT begins here. Master Meter is ready to deliver you game-changing results across finance, customer service, and utility operations. They offer an array of products to meet your utility’s needs. To determine which smart water solution is right for you, visit You can also download a copy of their award-winning guide to communicating the value of water to customers here.

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