Do Operators Need A Higher Profile?

It’s a paradox of the profession: Many operators pride themselves on quiet competence, when a more public profile could benefit their facilities and the water professions in general.

Former U.S. Olympic and University of Wisconsin hockey coach Bob Johnson had a favorite saying: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

In other words, certain players had certain skills. Accept that and don’t try to make them be something they’re not.

What has that to do with water and wastewater operators? Well, they’re in a profession that badly needs public advocates, yet as a class they are not extroverts. While some of course are excellent communicators and love leading the plant tours and staffing the booth at the county fair, many more prefer quiet competence, doing an important job exceedingly well, not really caring if they get credit.

So, water agencies need public spokespeople, yet many people on their teams lack the skills and inclination for that role. So, what to do? Find that person on the team who overtly or secretly likes public communication. And coach that person up.

A higher profile

I came upon this issue while writing a profile of Steve Woodworth for this issue of TPO. Woodworth, operator-in-charge of water and wastewater in the northeast Wisconsin city of Oconto, is widely known around town. He didn’t campaign to be popular. He became known partly by association (his father was police chief for many years) and partly through his job (he used to read water meters and fix water services and so met many homeowners).

The fact people know him definitely makes his job easier. Yet most water and wastewater operators aren’t well- known. Ask most people in their communities who runs the water or wastewater treatment plant and they wouldn’t know. And that suits those operators just fine.

So if the plant staff members prefer to stay quiet, who talks to the news media when a storm threatens to cause a sewer overflow? Who stands up at the public meeting and defends the proposed rate increase?

Some big agencies have a full-time public or media relations person on staff. Some have executive directors or managers adept at public communication. But others have neither. The solution, it seems to me, is not to let that situation persist and hope for the best. The solution is to find, develop and reward a communicator.

In the job description

Having a resident communicator doesn’t mean hiring a new person at a salary the agency can’t afford. It does mean finding that one person on staff who either openly or secretly loves to talk to people, and empowering him or her to be a spokesperson.

It doesn’t have to be the plant manager or superintendent — some of them fit the “quietly competent” mold. It could be a front-line operator. It could be an administrative assistant. All it takes is someone who understands the agency, understands the processes and cares deeply how the public perceives both.

Find that person. Offer to add communications to his or her job description, in return for a meaningful bump in pay (because what gets rewarded gets done). Get that person some reasonable training — through seminars given by the local operators’ association, through courses at the community college, through a Dale Carnegie course, through membership in the local Toastmasters chapter — whatever it takes, whatever is available.

In time, you’ll develop an enthusiastic, go-to person for all manner of media relations, public outreach, youth education and other functions.

It’s essential

Of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Becoming a skilled communicator, like becoming a capable operator, takes time and effort. But it’s better to start the process than live with an unacceptable status quo.

The point is that, like it or not, communication with the public is part of a water agency’s job. As with running the lab tests, maintaining the equipment and snowplowing the driveway, someone has to do it. If it doesn’t get done, the damage can be significant.

How does your agency handle the communicator role? Do you have advice that could benefit other water and wastewater utilities and departments? Share your struggles or successes by sending me an email to I promise to respond, and we’ll publish some of the responses in a future issue.  


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