One Voice

A broad-based coalition of industry associations and businesses aims to raise the profile of infrastructure investment as a national priority.
One Voice
Eileen O’Neill

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It’s been obvious for years: The nation’s public infrastructure is decaying and is getting too little attention and investment.

That’s especially true of those out-of-sight and out-of-mind sewer and water pipes and wastewater and drinking water treatment plants. Over the years, various initiatives have sprung up to call attention to infrastructure and the need to restore it. Among these was the American Society of Civil Engineers’ biennial Report Card on Infrastructure.

The newest effort, focused solely on water infrastructure, is the Value of Water Coalition. It’s a joint initiative of major water and wastewater associations and businesses, and its aim is to educate the public about the importance of clean, safe and reliable water for today and future generations.

The Water Environment Federation is one of six association members of the coalition. Eileen O’Neill, Ph.D., interim executive director, and Linda Kelly, senior director of development and strategic alliances, talked about the coalition in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: There have been campaigns on behalf of public infrastructure before. What makes this one different and in your view more effective?

O’Neill: The unique and groundbreaking nature of this effort is that we have six private-sector players and six major water associations in the United States onboard and prepared to speak with one voice, a strong voice. It’s very exciting to see all 12 of these organizations committed to doing what we can together to up the ante and raise the visibility of water infrastructure and the need to invest in it.

TPO: Is it possible that in the future the coalition membership will expand?

O’Neill: We are discussing as a group how we might best grow. Working with 12 entities is exciting but also challenging. We don’t want to over-burden the group with too much structure. At this stage we want to see how the member organizations can work together most effectively, each bringing their own strengths.

Kelly: The coalition’s structure is not nearly as important as our message and how we can get it out. As the campaign grows, we’ll be seeking help in delivering that message in many different ways. Looking ahead, there may be opportunities for fundraising with other water-sector organizations to help us magnify our impact on the public.

TPO: How did the coalition go about defining its message?

Kelly: We all agreed to focus on water infrastructure and the need for investment, and we looked for someone who could help us do that in a professional way. We put together a request for proposals, evaluated several firms and selected the Glover Park Group [strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C.].
Next we went to find out what the public knew about infrastructure and how important it was to them. With the Glover Park Group, we did qualitative and quantitative research. From that we learned not to go immediately to the public pounding our fists on the table and saying, ‘We have to get the infrastructure updated and you need to pay more.’ We found that the public needs to understand water systems and how water is important in every aspect of their lives — from their own personal water footprint to the way water is used to make products they encounter every day. Then we can build up to the fact that there needs to be a system that brings water to them and takes it away, and that the water has to be cleaned by innovative technologies and professional people.

TPO: What form does this campaign take so far? What is its public face?

Kelly: Right now, it’s a social media and digital campaign focused on a website [].

TPO: What is being done around that website to get the message out far and wide?

Kelly: It includes reaching out through Twitter, YouTube and GooglePlus. It also involves search engine optimization — drawing people to the website who have searched the Internet for anything having to do with water or water quality. The idea is to keep it simple and keep it focused on the one issue.

TPO: What makes this campaign meaningful to the people who operate what the WEF now calls water resource recovery facilities?

Kelly: Operators are interested in the role they play in helping the public understand the systems they run. I think operators know they can no longer just stay behind the berm and do great work. They have to let the public know they are the defenders of public health and the environment — they are water heroes. There is a need to elevate the profession.

TPO: Specifically, how might a clean-water plant superintendent, plant manager or operator make use of the Value of Water Coalition campaign?

Kelly: One way is simply to point to this website, to the facts posted there, and to pull those facts and use them in any flyer they produce, in any presentation they make, in any tour they conduct. Over time we hope this information will turn into electronic items they can cut and paste into bill stuffers or other materials. There is one very short YouTube video that tells how water is treated. Operators can show that to people and accomplish a lot of education in a very short time.

O’Neill: We believe the information is succinct enough, clear enough, startling enough if you will, that people will really pay attention to it. We encourage operators to ‘watch this space’ — keep coming back, and know that the information and the messaging on the website have been tested.

TPO: The information on the website is sorted under five words: Water is irreplaceable, shared, innovative, clean, green. How were those categories selected?

Kelly: The research found that those terms really resonated — people seemed to care about them and understand them better than others.

TPO: What’s the reasoning behind the emphasis on social media?

Kelly: It’s our primary method of connecting people to this issue. It’s an effective and inexpensive way of getting a message out, short of having millions of dollars to invest in TV, billboards, radio and magazines. We are also using paid social media instead of just organically trying to grow followers. The Glover Park Group is very savvy in advising us on how to use paid social media to increase leverage.

TPO: How are you measuring the impact and success of this effort?

O’Neill: It’s easy to do things like count hits on the website and followers on Twitter, but we want to dig deeper than that. We’ll go back with the same survey we did originally, ask the same baseline questions, and see if there has been a change in understanding and a change in behavior.

TPO: What outreach are you doing to the operator community?

O’Neill: We are getting information out through our usual networks — our newsletters and other vehicles. We’ll be raising awareness of what the Value of Water Coalition is doing and aspires to do, and the tools available, but we’re also listening to what the water professionals think are the gaps in communication that our coalition can help fill.

TPO: Is there a public affairs component to this? An effort to influence the elected officials who make decisions about infrastructure investments?

Kelly: That is not a part of what we chartered ourselves to do. The idea is that once people understand the seriousness of a failing infrastructure and the value of water, they will demand that we protect that very critical resource. We all realize it’s going to take some time. The public is overwhelmed with information. There are a lot of issues, and water is just one of them. If we are to have the impact we need, this has to be a long-term project. It takes time, it takes money, it takes dedication. We can’t be impatient. We have to be strategic. One thing that’s apparent about the Value of Water Coalition is the members’ commitment to the mission.

TPO: What parting words do you have for TPO readers?

O’Neill: We’re interested in their ideas and thoughts about the Value of Water campaign. We’d like them to use the Contact Us link on the website so we can put them on our email list and start a conversation.                                             


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