Getting the Public’s Attention—The Right Way

Sept. 17, 2015

Raising awareness—and money—for any cause is a challenge, because there are so many competing demands on the public’s attention. For stormwater programs, certainly, there is a wrong kind of recognition. We hear frequently about protests, and sometimes lawsuits, in cities that have attempted to launch stormwater utilities, for example—asking people to pay for services they don’t yet understand or value.

Some organizations go to attention-getting extremes. The Oakland Zoo in California recently announced it will be auctioning off paintings done by its animals—by elephants holding brushes in their trunks or placing one huge, paint-coated foot onto a sheet of paper; by giraffes with paintbrushes in their mouths; and by goats and meerkats who had their hooves and paws dipped in non-toxic paint and were lured by zookeepers wielding treats to run across a canvas. Bizarre, yes, but it’s the second time the zoo has auctioned such paintings: Last year it raised $10,000. Even more significantly, perhaps, it got lots of publicity and called attention to its need for funding.

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Could stormwater awareness work in the same way? I’m not suggesting coating sewer rats in paint and setting them loose on a sheet of canvas, but there are other very effective ways to capture the public’s imagination, and maybe even to put them to work for us. In Texas recently, two Phase II permittees—one a city, one a university—teamed up on the public education, outreach, and involvement portions of their permits. They held a community-wide contest to design storm drain manhole covers to be used throughout the two jurisdictions; a winning design would remind the public of the storm sewer’s connection to the local river and, on a practical note, would have to be castable in steel. The contest received more than 60 entries, and the winning design now appears on covers in areas of new construction and retrofit projects. We’ll have an article on this program coming up soon.

Join us in Atlanta August 18–22, 2019  for StormCon, a five-day special event to learn from experts in various water-related arenas.  Share ideas with peers in your field and across industries—exploring new stormwater management practices and technologies.  Click here for details

What if you don’t have the resources to hold a contest of your own? There are a host of ready-made logos and slogans available to spur ideas—some from individual state and local stormwater programs, others from EPA—on EPA’s Nonpoint Source Outreach Toolbox site. The same site also has links to successful media campaigns that are available for reuse; it includes print, television, and radio spots and contact information for the various programs. Some campaigns are serious; some are funny; many address a specific area of concern, such as landscaping pollutants or household chemical waste, and you can search according to topic.

To what extent has your own stormwater program reached out to the public? Would a contest work in your community? Share your ideas in the comments section below.