by Sergio Vazzoler

What changes are taking place in communication and community relations in our multiutilities? We asked Roberto Bergandi, head of communication at Amiat, Turin’s Environmental Hygiene Multiservices company.

Amiat today is a joint stock company that provides integrated ground hygiene, waste collection and disposal services for more than 1 million residents. Management of waste treatment plants, environmental services for public- and private-sector business users, as well as project management operations are its other lines of business.
Multiutilities have undergone a series of transformations in the last few years. What has this meant for communication?
Since my professional background was in very different corporate environments and business sectors, in my early months at Amiat I saw more than a few differences between communication in public utilities and communication in market-oriented corporate organisations. In the last few years these differences have narrowed and the regulatory changes in the P.U. sector have been a key driver for the development of a series of very interesting specific communication elements. Look at the institutional communication activities or services proposed by public or private utilities in the last three or four years: some of them have become case studies providing inspiration for a number of very smart agile companies.

What impact has the economic crisis had on investment in communication for a company that necessarily has to communicate continually on sensitive issues such as waste collection, keeping the city clean and other essential services?
The economic crisis has an inevitable impact on every corporate process, including communication of public utility services. Let’s not forget that communication is a strategic lever for achieving business objectives and, like any tool, draws on the company’s economic resources. The crisis has led to a reformulation of certain models, a review of priorities, above all it has triggered use of new sustainable forms of company-user contact based on current budgets. Obviously we couldn’t and didn’t want to close channels of contact with the public, but we were forced by the economic crisis to conduct a complete overhaul of our models.

Looking back at your years as head of communication at Amiat, which of your initial views have changed and which have consolidated? What message or campaign are you proudest of?
First of all I’ve witnessed a gradual but obvious maturing of public awareness of the environment. I thought wrongly that the public was less willing to engage on overly “ethical” issues and social responsibility. A particularly gratifying aspect, over and beyond the national plaudits for some of our campaigns at marketing-communication events, is the very positive return on our educational/information activities for young people and schools. Every year, our education projects, which range from teaching through play to the most complex multimedia educational activities, we involve thousands of kids and their teachers, and attract significant and growing interest.

Amiat has also been active on the CSR front for some years. What does social responsibility mean for you and what are the opportunities and difficulties for SMEs?
An organisation like Amiat cannot avoid engagement with and genuine application of CSR policies. I would say they are part of our corporate DNA and in some ways of our mission. For small companies this is a complex question and, as I have pointed out in a number of debates, the risk of green-washing is high. The best approach is to take small but solid steps, adopting the approach of gradual growth of a CSR conscience, rather than announce high-flown but vague projects which, if they lack real support, can have truly negative consequences for the business’ image and stability. 

Your new site has had a graphics makeover. How important is the online front for this type of activity?
I would say it’s essential, but it’s not exclusive! By definition our target is heterogeneous, given that environmental issues, eco-sustainable behaviour and economic management of waste are questions that affect everyone, irrespective of age, culture, gender. So the media we use to communicate must suit every microtarget we want to address. The university student, for example, prefers an app on a mobile device, an older person wants a traditional brochure with clearly printed instructions on how to separate waste.

From online to offline: what’s the state of the art in relations with the city and users on the key services provided by Amiat?
As I said the city-Amiat dialogue is conducted through many channels with different audiences, different languages and different rules. Even though Turin has almost one million residents, it’s a city where one-to-one communication is still essential, but at the same time it’s a city that enjoys, indeed, asks for innovation in service communication.

A final question: from your observatory, how do you see the future of environmental communication in Italy?
It’s difficult to make forecasts, but I think that the severe economic crisis of recent years has fuelled a rethinking of the core values of the community and the individual. Obviously the environment has come to occupy one of the most important places in this new scale of values and consequently environmental communication has emerged from what I would call a niche area to address a wider audience. Now we have to be careful not to waste what we have conquered day by day so far; above all we have to keep alive that participatory dialogue which has until now, in my view, been the critical success factor of our new environmental communication.