Biosolids Communications - Tell the Story

The podcast I listened to the other day described a surprising finding about how minds are changed. Despite most theories to the contrary, voter attitudes on very controversial topics can be changed quickly and permanently. The key is one-on-one, face-to-face conversations (Want To Change Minds? Start By Having A Face-to-Face Conversation). People with a stand on one of these issues, when engaged in conversations with proponents of the opposite viewpoint, can be turned around in their position.

In this podcast, an interviewee went from a “1” to a “10” on her position for abortion rights.“This Study Shows a Very Simple Way to Change Someone's Opinion on Abortion.”The same kind of 180 degree turnaround on a controversial topic was reported in “Doorstep visits change attitudes on gay marriage.” The website Changingminds.org gives training on this exercise. “Welcome to ChangingMinds.org, the largest site in the world on all aspects of how we change what others think, believe, feel and do. There are already around 7000 pages here….”

This could be very good news for the acceptance of biosolids programs. Telling our story, face-to-face, with the kind of conviction I know that we have, that’s what there is to do.

We have been reading of quasar energy’s challenges in Erie and Niagara Counties of western New York State for a number of months. Nate Carr is spearheading that company’s outreach program. He relates a situation with an in-your-face third generation farmer who started out railing against biosolids as the “next Love Canal” (a place that, sadly near to the quasar facility, not an insignificant aspect to the opposition’s strength). After about 15 minutes with Nate, the farmer acceded to Nate that “I hadn’t thought in those terms,” and “I will give it a more open-minded hearing.”

What is more, Nate had the insight that the strength of the anti-biosolids activists, no matter how wrong-headed we may think them to be, has been in their willingness to travel to communities beyond theirs’ to warn people, face-to-face, about what they see as the threat.

Face-to-face works, both ways.

But it is time-consuming, hence expensive, and discomforting. And, no amount of social media savvy and advertising muscle can replace it. Darn!

I was confronted this week by the immensity of the work that lays ahead on the score of biosolids communications. The MABA board of trustees met in a strategic planning workshop. One theme that emerged is the need to give priority to communications within our membership, to communications with prospective members, and to communications with “stakeholders,” “interest groups,” “elected officials,” and even anti-biosolids critics. I had to admit that these “Biosolids in the News” blogs I have been doing, attached to the news clips, talk to our own membership – our friends in the business, the easy audience. What about everybody else? So, change is ahead.

To gauge just how MABA and I stand in communications, I took to Google. I “googled” several questions. 1. What are biosolids used for? 2. What are Class A biosolids products? 3. What are the benefits of using biosolids? OH, NOOOO! In posing these questions to Google, a MABA website NEVER came up in the first several pages of ten addresses each. No one was being directed to any of the internet information sources, blogs, linkages, documents, etc., that I have so proudly and so thoroughly uploaded. In short, the MABA website is apparently ineffective in communication. Totally!

But I have a lot of company in my ineffectiveness. What does come when I posed these questions are some very old, outdated pages. One of the top sites for “Biosolids Benefits”has a last posting in January 2004. Another website on the uses of biosolids is a Missouri extension bulletinfrom 1996.

One thing I noticed, too, are lots of webpages offered on stuff that would be of no interest to a concerned citizen. Targeted advertising pages head the list, offering dewatering equipment and pumps. Google’s search algorithms knows that we love processes and the way equipment works. This is true whether you go to websites of public agencies or to biosolids service companies.

What we don’t like to talk about, apparently, is who actually uses biosolids and why they use it. Very few agencies or companies name names. My fear is that the anonymity of biosolids users and the lack of testimonials from “satisfied customers” undermine our representation of biosolids as safe and effective. So where do you find a compelling story of “why use biosolids?”

One important site is the Water Environment Association of Ontario. Their excellent contribution is a video: Biosolids - Naturally Sustainable (In English) I understand that MABA-member Lystek, with its operations in Ontario, has used this 18 minute video with great effectiveness at providing a basic understanding for community groups to whom the company is presenting proposals. The video gives the basics of wastewater; it links biosolids to popular recycling programs; it talks about the science and the level of control; it talks about benefits of soil improvement. But, I have to say, it is a bit long to hold attention.

In the United States we don’t have anything quite like this video explanation about biosolids. Why?

If the answer is “it is too expensive,” I offer this thought game: if we put up just one penny for each dry ton of biosolids produced annually in the United States (that is $0.01/dry ton, or .005% of total management costs) would we not have about $70,000 for a simple video?

You probably know that Seattle has invested in biosolids storytelling and video, with wonderful results. Its LOOP branding of biosolids has wonderful tagline “Turn Your Dirt Around.” The website tells the “why” of biosolids, with the names and faces of real people. You can see these short video clips on mobile-platform-friendly devices of all kinds: “Our friends share what they find inspirational about Loop.” Inspirational!

The Virginia Biosolids Council designed its website to feature users and their “why.” One was released this week, Diversification key to Spotsylvania farm. We learn: “Located near historic Spotsylvania Courthouse, Mr. Walter Gentry says diversification, and biosolids, are key to the sustainability of his farm. Gentry, like many farmers who choose to use biosolids on their farms, speaks highly of the yields it produces on his pasture land, corn and soybean fields.”

Even if you tell good biosolids stories, they need to be “findable” on Google. In searching Google for those three questions, I found those biosolids websites in which the skill of “search engine optimization” consultants is manifest. Several biosolids companies came up reliably with my questions. These include LystekBCR Environmental, and Schwing Bioset. A special callout is due to NEFCO, the company that provides biosolids drying services to the Boston area and has a facility in Detroit under construction. Its website points specifically to the “why” for biosolids users:  Understand Biosolids – Advantages. However, the work of the regional biosolids associations, MABA included, do not rise to the top with regularity. The know-how and skills are out there to have biosolids stories lead the Google list, we just don’t deploy them

No mystery shrouds the task ahead for building public support for biosolids. To change minds, we need use the most basic of skills and Tell the Story of Biosolids.