And therein lies the problem for municipal sewer authority PIOs.
Nobody cares that the sewage system infrastructure is doing its job. It's when it isn't that the conversation starts. And if the effluence hits the affluent, watch out! It’s emergency city council hearings and “the full story at 11” on channel 9.
I learned this last week in Napa where I was speaking to the California Association of Public Information Officials. During Q and A, the PIO for a municipal sewer authority asked, “What is the best way to inform our customers that our system has the lowest rate of incidents in the region and that we have never gone over budget?”
“There is no good way. Nobody cares. Much like a dependable toilet, you’re doing what people expect you to do.”
“But my boss wants me to get the word out and I’m having a very difficult time.”
“I’ll bet. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever seen the video of the North Carolina sewer monster? Because people care about the North Carolina sewer monster.”
The NCSM is a blob of wormy tentacles that actually moves when it senses danger. The video—which showed several of these critter living in the sewers of Raleigh, NC—got over 5 million hits on YouTube and was featured on ABC World News Tonight.
"Aligning your organization's story with a popular story or video is a great way to grab people's attention."
To drive home the point, I summoned my best Lt. Aldo Raine impersonation and twanged, “If you want folks to hear the story you want to tell, you’re gonna have to start by telling them a story that they wanna hear. And, cousin’, the North Carolina sewer monster story is a-boomin’!”
I definitely crossed the line. You could hear jaws drop.
“My boss does not want us showing our customers videos of sewer monsters. He wants us to tell them about our incident-free system and sound budget management.”
“Let’s break it down,” I said, drawing two circles on the white board. “The big circle on the left represents everything you could possibly say about the sewer authority. The small circle on the right represents everything your customers want to hear about the sewer authority. You see that tiny spot where the two circles touch? That’s sewer monsters. And the only way you’re going to get information from your circle into their circle is through that tiny sewer-monster connection.”
More awkward silence. It was apparent that not everyone was ready to color outside the lines to get their story out. But I also saw a few people nodding, smiling, and taking notes. And while the day did not end with a "slow clap" send off, I knew there were some PIOs who were already thinking of ways to tell a better story.
On the way back to the airport, I wondered whether the sewer monster example was a good idea after all. But even though it was an off-the-cuff response, I still haven't come up with anything better. So I'm asking you, how would you have answered the question?