Wisconsin Utility Emphasizes Importance of Public Outreach

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Treatment plant operators work day in and day out to serve their communities with efforts that are too often unnoticed. But a little effort in public outreach can go a long way toward building on the recognition essential workers like operators have seen this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent push by a Northeast Wisconsin utility is creating noticeable awareness from the local communities it serves. NEW Water operates two facilities in Green Bay and De Pere, and has seen the importance and value of community outreach firsthand.

Prior to the recent changes invoked by shutdowns and social distancing, much of NEW Water’s public outreach was achieved through public interaction like consistent facility tours, youth apprenticeship programs and STEM Superhero Camps, each designed to educate people of all ages on the indispensable services their utilities perform and the importance of clean water.

“COVID made a hard year. The pandemic has brought with it a number of unique challenges as far as getting your message as an organization out to your community,” says Tricia Garrison, public affairs and education manager at NEW Water.

Bruce Bartel, treatment manager at NEW Water, says that he misses getting the public directly involved and in the facilities. “One thing that I find disappointing with COVID is the fact that we can’t give tours. Virtual is a great tool and good supplement, but there’s just something about getting people out here to see what we do,” he says.

Garrison explains that even though the pandemic has brought about change, there is still a lot that can be done to spread the message. Part of doing that effectively is having people on the outreach team from all sectors of the plant. “Bruce is a big champion for our proud water sector. He sees the value in spreading the message outside the fence,” says Garrison. “I couldn’t do this outreach without the support of Bruce and others in the organization that support the partnership.”

With Bartel’s help, along with many others from within the NEW Water walls, the utility has put together a suite of materials that is steadily being released to the public. “There is a lot of interest in rates these days and rightly so. COVID has taken an economical hit to our community and country, so we really felt it was time to amplify the message for essential workers that you might not have thought about,” says Garrison.

Among their recent releases is an article titled 10 Things to Know About NEW Water, and a Thank You, Farmers, video that was recognized by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies with a National Environmental Achievement Award. They also worked with a local news station, WBAY, to produce a story about “out of sight” essential workers in the sewerage system.

“As a result of this push, we had a 117% increase in website traffic,” says Garrison. “The comments made on the WBAY Facebook page are just awesome. And these are people that are not friends with NEW Water, they are just people that watch WBAY and the comments are phenomenal.”

Bartel thinks getting recognition and help from local news stations and other media sources goes a long way. “I think it helps the community understand that these are essential, frontline workers and they can’t take time off or work from home like a lot of industries can. Our operators are here, we have maintenance workers here, lab folks are here. The frontline workers are out there, and they have continued to work hard through all of this,” he says.

Publishing and releasing original content is a great approach to generate public awareness, but it is far from the only way. Utilities of every size can benefit from reusing content offered by other organizations, and using platforms that are free to share the material. “There are a lot of great resources out there like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Water Environment Federation and the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association that already have great content. Social media is free, and I would really encourage utilities to use that. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Garrison. “I think there is great strength sharing content and material from other utilities.”

Another avenue for content is using education programs in your area. Offering internships or working with local high schools or colleges to create content for your utility is mutually beneficial. Teaming up with programs and students working on developing video creation skills is a great method to educate, gain content and help students in the community.

Effective and worthwhile content for community outreach does not have to be expensive or time consuming to make a substantial impact. Voicing the impact utility workers make each day through local and online avenues reaches the public and helps raise awareness. When the general public is more conscious of the impact our utilities make, it’s a win-win-win for utilities, the community and the environment.


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