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Wastewater research message goes viral with public awareness campaign
What is the best wastewater research message to share with millions of people in only 15 seconds? Many outreach professionals may wonder. Recently, an opportunity presented itself in New York’s Times Square, transforming a relatively small public outreach effort into a super-sized public awareness campaign that is going viral through a coordinated effort.
The Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), a non-profit organization formed in 1989, is an independent scientific research organization focusing on wastewater and storm water issues. Recently, WERF issued a series of requests for proposals (RFPs) for research that will support transition from a treatment-based water quality industry to a resource recovery and reclamation industry. The foundation envisions an industry that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. The research will seek to recover and commoditize all materials in wastewater and support net energy neutral operations.
WERF’s new energy research initiative builds on approximately 20 years and $3 million of research on energy management and energy generation in wastewater treatment operations. It aims to propel the industry toward net energy neutrality via two pathways:
News of this pending energy research reached editorial staff of New York City’s local CBS affiliate. Times Square has dozens of electric billboards advertising merchandise and broadcasting news, sports, and entertainment television shows. CBS controls a SuperScreen towering over the streets and catches the eye of thousands of people daily.
In the “city that never sleeps,” Times Square billboards light the streets 18 hours a day. They captivate audiences around the world and have become a symbol of American pop culture.
It all started when an editor reviewed WERF’s press release announcing the RFPs. The concept that “energy is embedded in wastewater” seemed unique to the editor. It was something that had not been promoted on the SuperScreen before. It also complemented a television personality’s personal interests. Because a recent cancellation in an advertising agreement rendered space available on the CBS SuperScreen, the agents were willing to negotiate a significant donation—but the campaign would need to be ready to run in less than two weeks.
As a result, WERF was asked to provide a public service announcement (PSA) to air on the CBS SuperScreen in Times Square. The production team requested a 15-second piece for broadcast every 30 minutes, 18 hours per day for at least two months. It would reach millions in the U.S., as well as tourists visiting Times Square from other countries. WERF staff believed that the opportunity was too good to squander. Wastewater research is not in the forefront of issues generally brought to the general public.
WERF, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) worked collaboratively to create a video promoting the value of research in the water industry. A team of communications directors from the three organizations developed the campaign by carefully selecting images and words that would resonate with the general public. The campaign would declare to the world many themes that WERF research has demonstrated over the years, including:
• Our lives depend on water;
• Energy is embedded in wastewater; and
• Research is critical to water’s continued use.
WERF staff wanted to convey the concept that first attracted the CBS editor in the most compelling way possible. Eventually, the group settled on a nighttime image of New York’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant digesters. The glowing orange egg-shaped digesters against a purple night sky were eye-catching. Other images included children splashing in hydrant sprinklers and festival patrons drinking from a portable drinking fountain trailer. All were carefully selected to pique the curiosity of passersby, per- haps enticing them to pause for a moment and contemplate the messages on water research.
A Resonating Message
After several days of editing and revising, the PSA was ready. Members of the team went to Times Square to see the PSA in action. Between news clips and advertisements for clothing and vacations, time and time again, the image of the digesters with its message “energy is embedded in wastewater” flashed in front of those on the streets. NYC DEP and others posted the images on YouTube, tweeted about them and posted links from Facebook pages.
In retrospect, it was a story of a press release merely trying to get the word out that WERF was seeking bidders for new research projects and turned into a massive public outreach campaign to tell the world about WERF’s continuing quest to unravel the complexities of the challenges facing our industry. The PSA ran from Feb. 17 to April 17, 2012, on the CBS SuperScreen in Times Square.
Among other places, a 22-second version of it can be viewed on WERF’s website and is available on NYC DEP’s YouTube page and via other social media. Several WERF subscribers have expressed interest in displaying it on their websites and on video screens in their hometowns. WERF intends to make it available for reuse in as many ways as are possible.