The Clean Water Voice
A Needle in a Haystack – The Media Relations Journey of a Diamond Ring Found in a Wastewater Treatment Plant
By: Nneka Onah and Christine Stevens, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services
Discovering the diamond ring
In the field of wastewater treatment, a surprise in day-to-day operations is rarely a positive event. This spring, the Environmental Services (ES) division of the Metropolitan Council, responsible for the regional wastewater treatment system serving 111 customer cities and townships in the Twin Cities metro region, made an unexpected discovery at one of their wastewater treatment plants that sparked months-long national media attention and greatly increased the visibility of the organization.
In mid-March, three maintenance staff members at the Rogers Wastewater Treatment Plant spotted a glimmer while examining a piece of equipment that was having issues in the influent process. Removing grits and solids from the surrounding area revealed a banged-up diamond ring that looked like it had traveled the sewer system. Surprised by the discovery, the crew wanted to get the ring back to its rightful owner.
John Tierney, maintenance manager, reached out to communications coworkers asking if social media or other external communication channels could be used to search for the ring’s owner. A series of events quickly followed that would not only reunite the ring with its owner but would also attract considerable media attention to explore the unusual story. The complex and agile public relations response reveals important lessons for wastewater treatment plants and other utilities who might encounter similar media attention and public relations events.
Navigating the process
Reuniting the ring with its owner was a collaborative effort of ES and media relations staff, local and national media outlets, and the public. Local outreach efforts began with a Minnesota Public Radio interview on March 24. Tierney discussed the discovery of the ring and provided information for potential ring owners to contact ES. The interview prompted an initial 50 calls to the general inquiry telephone line.
On April 5, a media event was held at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant, to make it more convenient for media than the Rogers Plant 30 miles from the center of the Twin Cities region. The larger scale of the Metro Plant provided more space for the event and demonstration of conveyer belts and bar screen that catch debris. Although Tierney conveyed the full key message about what not to flush, the majority of the media coverage ran a simplified statement that drove the message home: " "There are only three things you should flush, and a diamond ring isn't one of them." One reporter informed ES staff that she changed her practices at home after learning what not to flush at the first media event.
Six news outlets attended the media event announcing the found ring, including CCX Media, FOX 9 News, KARE 11, KSTP TV, and WCCO TV. The increased media coverage drastically increased the public visibility of the ring search and fueled public interest. “When we did the TV hit, we had 300 calls – it was a huge increase,” says Information Specialist Kai Peterson. Unable to keep up with incoming calls, ES launched an online inquiry form where people provided details of their missing ring and could upload pictures.
On April 16, a Rogers resident reached out suspecting the ring could be hers. The woman’s daughter had told her about seeing a TV news story. After reviewing her submitted photos, ES staff thought they might have a match. Two independent jewelers examined the ring and photos and agreed it could be a match. ES worked with their legal counsel and created an affidavit for the ring owner to sign upon receiving the ring, to protect both parties against conflicting claims of ownership. On May 8, a meeting with the potential ring owner confirmed a match.
The diamond ring had been missing for more than 13 years, having been flushed down the toilet two months after being given as 33-year wedding anniversary gift. The owner assumed it would never be found. Her husband, who owns a drain and sewer company, had snaked the sewer line trying to recover the ring. Ironically, the ring was lost at their home on Diamond Lake Road.
Now that the media was hooked on the story, a second media event took place on May 17 at the Rogers Plant to announce the reunion of the ring with its owner. Ten media outlets attended the final news conference, including CCX Media, Crow River News, FOX 9 News, KARE 11, KSTP TV, MPR, Star Tribune, WCCO Radio, and WCCO TV. ES set ground rules about asking questions and speaking directly with the ring owner to ensure her comfort and manage expectations. This second media event, which brought closure to the story by introducing the public to the ring owner, was ultimately the biggest draw of national and international media coverage.
Reflecting on key takeaways
In total, ES received approximately 350 emails and 400 calls inquiring about the diamond ring. The combined print, radio, tv, and online coverage reached an audience of approximately 1,555,708,793. The value of the media coverage, from 523 news clips, was estimated at $24,336,272.
From the initial media pitch to the return of the ring, the experience offered many media relations takeaways. Our maintenance staff brought forward the idea of leveraging media to find the ring’s owner. We needed to better spotlight all these staff, not just the one being interviewed, to recognize and encourage innovative thinking.
Having well-connected media relations staff, who could make appealing media pitches and coordinate with others internally to host media events, resulted in strong local media coverage. Local coverage led to national and even international coverage.
We learned that it is critical to anticipate the magnitude of responses if an item of value is announced in the media. And the importance of having a plan in place before contacting the media Preparing internal staff for the possibility of a large-scale public and media response and having a robust phone system and web intake form in place is crucial. Once the press shared news of the ring’s discovery, the response from the public was both quick and unrelenting as people rekindled hope of reuniting with lost wedding and anniversary rings. A caller from Canada inquired because her husband who had changed airplanes at MSP had lost a ring.
Another takeaway is that someone on the media team should be knowledgeable of the safety requirements in any facility hosting members of the press. They can help ensure that employees interacting with the media maintain safety protocol, both on and off camera. They can also prep the media on how to dress appropriately in an industrial setting and distribute the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), like safety glasses.
From the initial discovery of the ring to responding to the public, ES staff consistently demonstrated integrity and commitment, core values of ES. The three maintenance staff wanted to reunite the ring with its owner. Numerous members of the public who inquired about their lost rings noted that although they were disappointed their ring was not the one discovered, they were appreciative of the compassionate response they received from ES staff.
While the missing ring only had one owner, millions of people learned about of the value of wastewater treatment and the value of the staff who support those services. These messages are far more enduring than finding a needle in a haystack.
The views expressed in this resource are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect those of NACWA.