Education session focuses on the importance of positive public involvement.

Welcome to Day 1 of the 2015 Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show – Education Day. It’s my third show in Indianapolis, and the biggest show COLE Publishing has ever held.

While technical sessions and those focusing on new equipment and technology are very popular, also important are those that focus on business improvement and department efficiency. In one Monday afternoon session, presenter Gil Longwell spoke on the need for both private enterprise and public utility operators to learn to quell potential controversy at its source — essentially picking up those sharp, pointed rocks before they cause damage.

“It’s important to remember that knowledge can go a long way toward erasing ignorance and fear,” says Longwell. “Even if public involvement is sometimes a pain, it’s also a necessary process.”

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Longwell explained that the key to a public involvement plan, whether you are running a large municipal wastewater treatment facility with hundreds of employees, or your own one-man septic pumping operation, can be broken into four key components:

  • Analyze the project at hand forwards and backwards. It is impossible to educate others if you don’t have a keen understanding of the issue yourself.
  • Identify the “rocks,” and pick them up. Those jagged, sharp rocks are the pointed, potentially damaging opinions, both real and imagined, that opponents will present. Be prepared with “rock busting” answers that will not only rectify the problem, but start a gradual changing of opinion.
  • Know what your message is.
  • Have a plan in place to present that message.

Even when the components are met, the work isn’t over. Those that influence public policy — namely elected officials and the public — may never see things your way, regardless of how much evidence you have to back your point. “With public policy influencers, resistance may be futile, but negotiations and discussion can be productive,” says Longwell. “Be ready to bend and compromise.”

Gaining the trust of the public isn’t always easy, either. But there are steps that can be taken to help ensure that you are the “go to” expert on industry questions in your community. “It’s all about being a professional,” says Longwell. “That means using common words in your explanations, not jargon. That means no potty humor like ‘We’re #1 in the #2 business.’ That means no saying ‘I’m justa pumper’ or 'I’m justa operator.’ It’s about taking pride in what you do and showing that pride in your community.”

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Longwell also suggests positive local media relations, as well. “You want to be the subject matter expert for the local media,” he says. “Maintain periodic contact with media contacts and offer story ideas. If you are good to them, they’ll be good to you.”

Longwell warned that the biggest “rock” is one you throw yourself. “There are seven words of doom that you never want to utter,” he says. “Saying ‘I don’t know, here’s what I think,’ can destroy your reputation. Take your time, find out what went wrong, and get back to them. Since you’re the industry expert, they’ll wait.”

Education sessions will continue through Thursday at WWETT 2015 at the Indiana Convention Center. I’ll also be on the show floor all three days, collecting new product information and story ideas. If you happen to see me on the show floor or in between an education session, come say hi and tell me your story.

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