Never Use the “D” Word

Under the radar was the preferred approach for most biosolids programs for a very long time. ‘If we don’t make a fuss, perhaps no one else will’. Somehow that silent approach was not sufficient to silence many in the opposition. I am happy that there seems to be a paradigm shift underway- more and more agencies are not only not silent; they are bragging about and branding their solids. The key here is that you don’t brag and brand something that people ‘dispose’ of. You still here that ‘D’ word all too often when people who work in wastewater talk about their solids. We have to ‘get rid’ of a certain tonnage of sludge. Going above the radar requires attention to words and terms. If you call your product ‘waste’ other people will likely understand the ‘waste’ part and have a hard time with the product portion of the equation. So this library is all about how to choose your words when you expect people to hear what you are saying.

The first article in the library is a very easy to read piece with its’ share of bad humor and personal details- in other words, one of my columns from Biocycle on this very topic. It is called ‘Watch Your Language’. From there we go to a classic article on product branding and consumers. This article is based on a study of ground beef but applies to biosolids. The authors found that consumers preferred the beef that was labeled as ‘75% lean’ over that labeled as ‘25% fat’ despite these being exactly the same thing. In other words, lead with your strength. They also found that once the consumers had tasted the beef, it was the flavor and not the fat content that was the key in determining consumer preferences. With biosolids, we have just about always found that once a farmer or these days, a gardener tries a biosolids based product, they are sufficiently impressed with the plant and soil response that they really don’t care about metals or microconstituents. The issue with Class B or agriculture based programs, is that most of the stakeholders will never have the opportunity to use the product directly. That means that the quality of the product has to be communicated through the labeling. In other words, we are back to the question of whether it is better to lead with the fat content or the lean.

Ashley Mihle from the King County biosolids program talked about this at our Biofest conference this year.

She reported on a large survey about what people thought about biosolids and what factors were important to stakeholders who don’t have direct product exposure to use as a basis for their decisions. One thing that she said in her presentation was that searches on Google for the term ‘biosolids’ were on the decline. This is potentially a good thing as it may mean that press coverage of biosolids ‘controversies’ are occurring less frequently. The third article in the library would suggest that this is a good thing.

The third article talks about how the media typically uses conflict as a standard way to present or tell a story. The perspectives of both sides are presented. This enables the press to appear as a neutral party in a story. The point with this is to reaffirm that you are not crazy- the news media and traditional approach to biosolids is not always what you are looking for to draw attention to what you do.

What Ashley found and what you may as well is that while most people don’t know about biosolids, when they find out, they think it is cool. The things that they like most are that it is such a ‘green’ solution to something that starts as poop. She calls them ‘poopsuadables’. The 4th article discusses how you might want to include ‘green’ when talking about your program. The authors discuss the different levels of ‘greenness’ in the consumer base and how common they are. The authors describe the importance of being green to the range of consumers who go from True Blue Greens (9%) who are driven with a desire to cause positive environmental change to Basic Browns (33%) who just try to get through the day. Much of this is focused on purchasing and behavior. Here it is important to remember that for many municipalities, you are not asking them to use your material- you can’t. You are just asking them to be supportive of others who do. When you fall into the category of having a product that anyone can use- go back to the ground beef article. They then discuss different approaches to being green that companies take. Here read this and think about whether you want to describe yourselves as environmental stewards first or perhaps lead with fiscally responsible.

The last article in the library reinforces how this started- with the critical importance of word choice in framing what you are talking about. The authors presented the same story to people about crime in the city. In one case the language that they used framed this using language more appropriate to health issues- crime is a ‘virus’. In the second, they used a more conventional approach describing crime as a ‘wild beast’ invading the city. People presented with the first version thought that treating the disease, by eradicating poverty and other factors that lead to crime was the answer to the cure. Those presented with the second version wanted to form militias to attack the beast. Use the word ‘dispose’ and people will wonder why you don’t just landfill those biosolids.

You can see a version of this paper in a TED talk:

Often watching is easier than reading.

You can also watch this very short and clever TED video to decide what words might be best to describe what you do:

So frame your message. Think of who you want to target. Try if you can to get people to try your product. And NEVER, NEVER use that ‘D’ word.

Sally Brown, University of Washington