WEF’s new communications and outreach director says water professionals need to make the case for the value of the resource and highlight the excellent work they do.
These are critical times for the water sector. Infrastructure investment is lagging. The public has been shaken awake by issues like drought and the contamination of municipal water supplies. Seldom has the value of water been more apparent, and seldom has the need to communicate that value been greater.
Enter Travis Loop, appointed in March as senior director of communications and public outreach for the Water Environment Federation. His responsibilities are broad, but a major priority will be helping WEF members — individuals, utilities and associations — deliver critical messages to their communities about the importance of water.
Communication matters because in the end, consumers and businesses will need to support water infrastructure investments with their tax and rate dollars. The better they know the importance of what they’re paying for, the more willing they’ll be to contribute. There’s also the matter of seeing that people in the water professions are properly appreciated for the roles they play.
Loop comes to his position with diverse and solid experience in journalism and in communications in the government and nonprofit sectors. He talked about his role and the challenges ahead in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: What is your experience in communication as it relates to the water professions?
Loop: I started out with seven years as a newspaper reporter and editor with environment and water issues as one of my regular beats. Then I worked in the communications office of the governor of Hawaii, where water issues are big. Next, I became communications director for the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is a partnership of six states, Washington, D.C., and a number of federal agencies working to restore the bay. After a couple of years there I spent six years as director of communications for the Office of Water at U.S. EPA headquarters.
TPO: What motivated WEF to institute this new position?
Loop: There is an ever-increasing need for communications and public outreach in the water sector. It’s more important than ever for the water sector to raise its profile, call attention to its needs, and educate the public. Engaging in those activities has been a priority for WEF. One of our top five objectives is to increase public awareness around the value of water. That’s why this position was created.
TPO: How would you describe your role and the areas where you’ll be focusing?
Loop: WEF is an organization with 34,000 members — plant operators, utility managers, scientists, engineers and researchers. My main focus is to highlight the work all those people are doing across the water sector and provide resources so they can do their own communication about water issues. I also want to represent water issues as a whole on the national stage.
TPO: What do you see being involved in your work at the national level?
Loop: WEF is involved in a number of national initiatives around public awareness. For example, we have the Value of Water campaign, Imagine a Day Without Water, World Toilet Day, World Water Day and the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. So one thing I’ll be doing is working to expand and elevate our role in those initiatives and make them even more effective in getting public attention around water issues.
TPO: Does that include communication about the need for more investment in water infrastructure?
Loop: Yes. There is a tremendous need for increased infrastructure funding, and a number of reports document that. EPA projects a need over $600 billion in the near term; others have cited even higher amounts. WEF was recently part of releasing a report through the Value of Water Campaign, The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure. It showed that closing the gap in infrastructure investment would create 1.3 million jobs and generate $220 billion in economic activity.
TPO: Will you also be addressing the need to attract more people to water careers?
Loop: The workforce is another important issue. It’s well documented that there are shortfalls in the workforce now in terms of numbers. Because of pending retirements there is a need to get more young people into careers at treatment plants on the drinking water and wastewater sides.
TPO: What do you observe about ways to reach young people and encourage them to look at water-related careers?
Loop: We need to focus our communications on young people specifically and reach them on the platforms where they communicate. It might not be traditional job fairs. It might mean doing more on Instagram and other social media. We have to meet them where they prefer to be talked to and let them know about the opportunities the water professions offer.
TPO: Does your role tie into WEF’s emphasis on water resource recovery?
Loop: Yes. An exciting shift continues to happen in moving from wastewater facilities to resource recovery facilities — water reuse, biosolids, energy generation and nutrient capture. We want to communicate about the innovation that’s happening and highlight specific examples around the country where we see utilities being leaders in those areas. We also need to call the public’s attention to stormwater, why it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and the benefits of addressing it. Approaches like green infrastructure can bring great multidimensional benefits.
TPO: How would you assess the current state of public interest and engagement around water issues?
Loop: As a communicator I see a strong appetite and awareness in the public around our issues. In a Gallup poll about a year ago, people ranked pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs as their top environmental concern, above issues like climate change and loss of rain forests. Water issues have come to the front of people’s minds with events like the drought in California and the situation in Flint, Michigan. People realize more and more how important water is.
TPO: What recommendation would you give to members, WEF Member Associations and utility agencies to help them communicate effectively?
Loop: I would encourage them to be very active advocates: holding tours of their facilities, inviting the media to visit, inviting students, elected officials and other decision-makers, and using those encounters to talk with them face to face, so they can see how the water sector serves the community and what the challenges are. There is great value in direct communication at the local level.
TPO: What tools does WEF offer to support such efforts?
Loop: We have a Water Advocates program that provides training to help water professionals get in front of elected officials and the public. We’ve also produced a package of fact sheets and infographics that can be used to talk about why water infrastructure and treatment are so important, and the value of investing in them. We just worked with AWWA to produce a Communicating the Value of Water toolkit that looks at infrastructure issues nationally and by geographic regions of the country.
TPO: Is there a need for water professionals and organizations to look beyond traditional media for communication channels?
Loop: Social media continues to grow as a way to share information in our society. A lot of people who hear about Facebook and Twitter tend to roll their eyes and think that’s just for personal information. But when you look at the numbers around Facebook and Twitter, and compare that to the traffic at CNN and other news sites, the reach of social media is massive. So it’s good for people in the water sector to get engaged on social media, share information, and create more digital buzz. That’s why we launched our #mywaterlegacy campaign — so people in the water sector could tell about what they do and why it’s important.
TPO: How do you respond to the comments from many in the water sector that they prefer to simply do a good job quietly, or that they can’t find time or money for communication?
Loop: Those are two very understandable challenges. Thousands of people in the water sector are just hardworking folks who go about their business with dedication and aren’t doing it for attention or glory. But being an advocate isn’t about seeking individual accolades. It’s simply about calling attention to the value of water and helping the sector get the resources it needs. Finding time is a challenge for everyone. Rather than making a big list of ways to be an advocate, I’d suggest picking one or two places to start and seeing where that goes.
TPO: What directions will you take in developing communication resources for water sector participants?
Loop: One priority is to expand on the materials we provide around current public awareness efforts. That includes making sure, for our national initiatives, that we provide toolkits for people and possibly hold conference calls or webinars beforehand to walk people through what’s happening and suggest what they can do. Another priority is to provide more materials around the key issues so people can be prepared to address them. I also believe there are tremendous opportunities to secure coverage for success stories in local media. We’d like to hold webinars or other trainings on how to work with the media to get attention for local projects and issues.
TPO: If you could leave operators with one essential message that needs to be communicated, what would that be?
Loop: Water is essential to our health, our communities and our economy, and it’s water professionals who ensure clean and reliable water supplies every day. We need to be more vocal about the value of water and the incredible work we all do to provide and protect it.