Tips & Tricks for Effective Public Outreach

Tips & Tricks for Effective Public Outreach

Superintendent Kathy Dillon of the  Brownsburg (Indiana) Wastewater Facility makes sure citizens and ratepayers keep up with developments through an effective communications program. (Photo By Marc Lebryk)

Everything municipal workers do is for the customers, yet often it can feel like the industry is fighting against those it serves. Misinformation and unfortunate stigmas are common, which is why most municipalities have at least thought about customer education and outreach.

Over the years, MSW has covered many different public outreach programs. Here’s the first part in a two-part series in which we’ve compiled some notable examples to assist in planning your communication strategy.

What is outreach?

Any interaction with a customer can be considered outreach, but to really project a message to the public takes more than a series of small encounters — it takes a plan. For some, that’s as simple as giving facility tours.

Marshalltown (Iowa) Water Works has free tours for student groups and the general public, and they have become very popular.

“Sometimes we have two to three groups a day,” says Tim Wilson, director of water production. “Different operators take different groups to give the students fresh perspectives, and also to save our voices.”

Marshalltown Water Works CEO and General Manager Steve Sincox at the water treatment plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Photo By Scott Morgan)
Marshalltown Water Works CEO and General Manager Steve Sincox at the water treatment plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Photo By Scott Morgan)

Outreach and education doesn’t end with tours for Marshalltown. The water distribution team came up with a unique way to teach the community about the benefits of tap water over bottled water.

“The staff was tasked with building a watering station to promote our tap water and educate people about the exorbitant cost and waste associated with bottled water,” says Steve Sincox, general manager and CEO.

Introduced in April 2015, the water wagon travels to community events around town. Team members connect the wagon to a water source and chill the water before serving it to the public.

Providing educational tools and materials is key to outreach. Just take it from Prince Rupert (British Columbia) Operations Department director of operations, Richard Pucci.

His department embarked on a large water main replacement, and sought the support of residents by producing a video designed to demonstrate the state of the aging infrastructure — a part of their city few would ever see otherwise.

Brownsburg (Indiana) Wastewater Facility is another example, making sure its citizens and ratepayers keep up with developments through an effective communications program.

“We share different aspects of the wastewater profession with our customers,” says superintendent Kathy Dillon. “It’s a great opportunity for us to acquaint others about our profession.”

One facet of the communication effort is something they call “Lift Stations 101.” Using a combination of different media, including the town’s website and Facebook pages, Brownsburg lets people know what a lift station is and how it works.

“It’s important that people understand what these utilities are in their backyard,” Dillon says. “We tell them ‘This is how you can help us.’”

Another new series of meetings with citizens called the Town Resident Academy brings about three dozen area residents together in sessions with each of the town departments. They learn about the current status and future direction of town services. The program consists of six two-hour sessions, stretching over a 12-week period.

Dillon says. “It was a great opportunity to meet a wide variety of community representatives and share the facility and everyday services that each of us provide. The questions they asked were amazing, as well as the ideas they shared with us.”

The wastewater department also submits informative articles to the local newspaper, and uses its TV truck and camera system in its educational efforts, too. “We set up the truck in the work area and let people — especially students — navigate through a pipe system,” Dillon says. “They can operate the camera and zoom in and tilt to look at different angles.”

Finally, Dillon and her team always close an education program by showing off a collection of objects they have found in the sewer system. “We pass around a jar of what we call ‘sewer prizes.’ It brings smiles to people’s faces.

“It really amazes them and gets them thinking about how those items can even end up there in the first place.”


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