Clean Water Advocate

How Strategic Communication Bolstered the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s Largest Project 

By Brian Hoelscher | Executive Director at Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District

We recognize that project success comes from marrying the strengths of our engineers with the talents of our strategic communicators.

At the heart of effective utility management lies a pivotal element often relegated to the background – strategic communication. This was vividly illustrated by our recent undertaking at the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) to upgrade our incinerators.

This endeavor was not only massive in scope but also fraught with potential challenges. Yet, the early involvement of our professional communication staff equipped us to effectively navigate these hurdles, demonstrating the vital role of strategic communication in shaping successful outcomes.

In an organization like ours, led by engineers whose strengths lie in problem-solving and technical expertise, it’s common for communication to be viewed as a downstream process – a way to disseminate information once decisions have been made. However, at MSD, we recognize that project success comes from marrying the strengths of our engineers with the talents of our strategic communicators.

Our strategic communicators are not merely message conveyors; they are skilled at gauging public sentiment, weaving compelling narratives, and expertly predicting and preempting public reactions. Integrating them into our projects and strategic initiatives from the onset ensures a comprehensive approach to project management, one that marries technical precision with insightful communication.

The incinerator upgrade project was a textbook example of this integrated approach. The early involvement of our communication professionals meant that we were not just planning a project, but also strategizing how to effectively communicate its nuances to different stakeholders. This dual-track planning enabled us to foresee and prepare for potential challenges and set the stage for a smoother execution.

Laying the Groundwork for Success

Long before the project became public, our communication team identified three key potential concerns: environmental justice, cost, and “why now?” Rather than waiting for these concerns to arise, our communication team proactively addressed them. They engaged with three key community groups corresponding to these concerns, including two that had been fully engaged during the project development phase, thereby establishing trust and securing genuine support early in the process.

The team adopted a similarly proactive approach with our other key audiences: employees, stakeholders, and government partners. Understanding that this project could attract heightened scrutiny, it was crucial that these groups first heard about the project from us, fully grasping its nuances and importance.

When it was time to introduce the project to the wider public, the communication team was steps ahead. They issued a press release immediately following the Board of Trustees' initial action on selecting the contractor, ensuring that our narrative was the first and most authoritative source of information on the project. The press release included endorsements from the three key community groups, demonstrating a broad base of community backing while offsetting potential concerns before they could arise.

Navigating Challenges Through Strategic Communication

Our communication strategy was put to the test when an unexpected challenge emerged. As our Board of Trustees was finalizing its decision on the contractor, a for-profit utility attempted to disrupt MSD’s plans, attracting significant attention from media and elected officials.

This situation threatened not only our project but also the trust of our customers, stakeholders, and the Board of Trustees. However, the groundwork from our communication team placed us in a strong position to effectively manage this crisis.

When a local politician, influenced by this competing interest, issued a press release riddled with misinformation, our communication team was prepared. Their deep familiarity with the project enabled them to respond rapidly and accurately, correcting the misinformation and providing clear, convincing clarifications. Media coverage analysis showed that 80% of the stories were positive or neutral – a significant achievement for a defensive effort. Moreover, the few public comments that surfaced largely supported the project.

This situation threatened not only our project but also the trust of our customers, stakeholders, and the Board of Trustees.

The team's proactive engagement with community groups also played an important role in blunting this attempt to sway public opinion. By securing support from key stakeholders early on, we effectively prevented the opposition from gaining community backing. Additionally, our early engagement with other audiences ensured they were well-versed in the project's details, making them less susceptible to misinformation.

The communication team’s involvement had a second, less obvious benefit: it freed me and the technical staff to concentrate on the Board of Trustees. This period was critical – the project's success hinged on our ability to maintain the Board’s confidence and to guide them through informed decision-making. The freedom to dedicate our efforts to the Board was invaluable in ensuring the project's advancement.

Our experience with the incinerator upgrade project at MSD reaffirms the indispensable role of strategic communication in utility management. In an age where public opinion increasingly influences the success of our efforts, integrating the expertise of professional communicators into strategic planning at both local and national levels is not just smart, it's critical for effective utility management.

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