What's In a Name: Shedding Wastewater's Stigma Via Rebranding

A sweeping effort to rebrand their treatment facility has changed public perception for Albany County

What's In a Name: Shedding Wastewater's Stigma Via Rebranding

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The words traditionally used to define municipal treatment systems — sewer, sewage, wastewater — have never painted a flattering image in the minds of customers.

Municipalities and the industry at large are constantly seeking new ways to change the public’s view of wastewater. A lot of that is simple terminology; we say collections systems and treatment facilities, instead of sewers and wastewater plants.

One system in Albany County, New York, has taken that idea a step further by completely rebranding its wastewater division.

“We rebranded ourselves as the Albany County Water Purification District, which is really more of the mindset we want the public to realize,” says Tim Murphy, executive director. “When you say the name sewer district, they just think ‘gross.’ It’s everything in the sewer, and they don’t even know what happens to it.”

Worth the effort

Albany County has an active community education program, with frequent plant tours, and last December they participated in a radio broadcast, which was covered previously by TPO. Through these efforts they came see the reality of the stigma attached to sewer work.

“If you look up what ‘purification’ means, it’s to remove impurities from the water,” Murphy says. “In this day and age, that’s the message that we need to get out to the public, that we’re here, removing impurities from water, and returning it back to the environment.”

Murphy cites managerial and political support as the key factor in implementing the change successfully. He especially praised the leadership of their county executive, Daniel McCoy, who has encouraged new initiatives like this one.

“We’ve had a number of facilities call us and say, ‘how’d you go about changing your name?’” Murphy says. “We went to our political leaders and said, ‘we need to get out in front and this is what we’re doing.’”

Do it for the employees

Another big aspect of the change was employee morale. The utility had on several occasions provided workers with branded clothing featuring the old name — Albany County Sewer District — but nobody was wearing them.

“Nobody was wearing them because there was this stigma. Nobody wanted to wear anything that said Albany County Sewer District on it,” Murphy says. “We became aware of the fact that there truly is a stigma, not just with our workers but with the public in general.

“If you tell somebody you work at the sewer district, they turn their nose up right away, because they don’t understand it. So we realized we needed to rebrand it. We needed to get a message out there of what we are actually doing.”

Murphy and the rest of the staff put together a presentation with several options, and took it to the board of commissioners for the utility. In the end, they decided on Water Purification District as not just the most appealing, but also the most accurate description of what their two treatment facilities really do.

“Of course the thing behind that is, what are we doing to the water? We’re removing the impurities from it. So it made sense.

“I can tell you that we’ve got a lot of favorable comments on our rebranding,” Murphy says. “If you look at most rivers and receiving streams across our nation, over the past 50 years, nothing’s done more to clean them up than our facilities.”


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