What’s Wrong with Selling?

People in water-related professions should feel free to stand up in public and advocate for projects and programs they believe in

My first clean-water-related job was with a metro agency looking to win public acceptance for its biosolids land application program, which had run into opposition in some outlying communities where farmers were using the material.

When the agency embarked on a public participation program to get citizen’s feedback and suggestions on the program, the local newspaper responded with an editorial cartoon showing a sewer pipe labeled as the agency’s “public relations campaign,” dumping black goo on a hapless man labeled “taxpayers.” The caption read: “The sweet smell of boondoggle.”

The accompanying editorial went on about how the agency shouldn’t be spending tax money to “polish its image.” First of all, that’s not what the public participation program did. And second, what’s inherently wrong with a public agency going out to the public it serves and telling its story?

I often hear the argument that it’s wrong for public entities to engage in “public relations” and “marketing” — that when discussing their projects and initiatives, it should be “just the facts.” Don’t be an advocate. Just lay out the data and let the public decide. To that I somewhat impolitely say, “Baloney.”


Need to believe

Consider a school district putting forth a referendum to build a new school. To hear certain radio talk show hosts tell it, the only “fact” that matters is that the school board is trying to raise people’s taxes. What about the benefits of the new building? Like replacing an antiquated school with one that is wired for technology, more energy efficient, cleaner, better lit, more comfortable, and more conducive to learning?

What is wrong with the school board, administration and staff advocating what they believe is best for the institution they are sworn to serve? Doing so is in fact part of their jobs, or ought to be.

Now, should they hide information? Sugar-coat inconvenient facts? Mislead? Of course not. But they should be free to make the case that the building project is needed, based on the information at hand. The public then has the right to disagree, and say no — that’s democracy. But the public officials should feel no obligation to be passive, or neutral, about what they propose. How is it any different for water, wastewater and stormwater agencies?


True advocates

And that brings us to a couple of recent MSW articles about municipal leaders who did not shy away from marketing. A story in the March issue told how Brant Keller, Public Works and Utilities director in Griffin, Ga., built partnerships in the community to win approval for a stormwater utility with authority to raise funds and correct rampant stormwater problems.

At first, residents and businesses opposed the utility, mainly because it was another municipal agency that would levy a fee. Keller and his allies got the utility implemented by methodically and boldly making the case.

Keller even hired (horror of horrors!) a media relations firm to help market the stormwater utility concept. He also went door-to-door in his community of 23,500 to explain the need for the utility and urge residents and businesses to support it. Should he hang his head in guilt and shame for his deeds? No, no, a thousand times no.

Then there was the City of Guelph, Ont., also profiled in a March article. The city had a limited time to complete a vast array of infrastructure projects under a deadline for federal government stimulus funding. An aggressive communications campaign helped explain to residents why it would be worthwhile to endure the many traffic and other disruptions that would result from doing so much work in such a short span.


Time to speak up

Now is exactly the wrong time to be timid about supporting clean-water projects and infrastructure. Public investment is on the chopping block like never before. If the people in the water professions don’t speak up for the facilities that keep our rivers and lakes clean and our properties free from flooding, then exactly who will?

As another public agency spokesperson explained about her outreach program: “Wastewater is not exciting, except maybe to us. But it’s critical to our community, and we’re our only cheerleaders.” So must everyone in the industry be.

With megaphone and pom-poms? Likely not. But with conviction, energy, and unrestrained enthusiasm? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.


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