WEFTEC 2014: Of hot dogs and clean water

Sound advice from WEFTEC on how utilities can tackle the topic of branding.

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Note: Ted J. Rulseh, editor of TPO magazine, is blogging from WEFTEC in New Orleans this week. If you're at the show and would like to meet him, stop at Booth 2253. Otherwise, you can always email editor@tpomag.com.

What can a self-proclaimed hot dog and sausage queen teach clean-water agencies about branding? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Janet Riley talked about branding and resiliency during the Utility Executives Forum at WEFTEC 2014. As the public face of the American Meat Institute and president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Riley knows what it’s like to be in an industry that faces issues of public perception.

Are chickens really full of hormones? Isn’t it cruel to keep animals confined indoors? What really is in hot dogs, anyway? Riley – who calls herself “the Queen of Wien,” fields questions like those all the time, and she can sympathize with a clean-water industry that is also much misunderstood. She has worked hard with her colleagues to develop and improve her industry’s brand, and she shared advice that applies well to water and wastewater utilities.

Here’s a sampling:

  • Good brands don’t just happen. They have to be planned, repeated and reinforced.
  • Decide what you want your publics to know and believe. A slogan alone will not do the job.
  • Deliver the brand in multiple ways. Don’t rely on the news media, which always runs information through its own filter. Reach out directly through social media, websites, and person-to-person contacts like speaker bureaus.
  • Have fun. “Humor equals human,” Riley said. It may be a bit risky to use humor when addressing difficult subjects, but when used well it can be powerful.
  • Use pictures. It’s a visual age, and facts on gray pages don’t communicate with nearly the effect of colorful images and infographics.
  • Build a bank of trust. Don’t wait for a crisis to communicate. Make deposits now in the bank of goodwill. You can then make withdrawals when things get tough (as when it’s time to ask for a rate increase).
  • Start with the kids. Be aware of what they see about the industry on the Internet and on Facebook and Twitter. Push back against those urban legends. Take part in school career days and present the professions in a positive light.
  • Know that peer-to-peer influence is huge. General trust in authority is declining, but people still trust those they know. Make a good impression on a few people and they are sure to share it with others.
  • Convey openness. On websites, in videos, in public presentations, share more information, not less. Demonstrate that you have nothing to hide.

Summing up, Riley observed, “Strong brands are resilient to crises.” Rough times will come, but the stronger your brand, the better you’ll be able to make it through and come out on the other side with your reputation intact.


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