This article was taken from the whitepaper “Communications & Water management: How utilities can communicate better.” You’ll find the it here.

Today, many stumble upon Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD)’s Twitter account and are surprised and delighted by the creative, humorous, sentimental, and entertaining content coming from a sewer utility. 

It may seem effortless now, but the truth is @neorsd’s success is the result of years of building trust internally and externally so that the communications team has the freedom to experiment with content and use social media channels as they’re meant to be used: with humor, humility, and humanity. 

As it turns out, sewer humor struck a chord with the people of Northeast Ohio, helping to humanize the great work our organization does for the community while building trust and transparency with customers. Here are some lessons we learned over the years about building internal and external trust for creative freedom on social media.

How to start rebuilding trust using social media: the story behind Northeast Ohio Regional District’s Twitter account

Our current online presence was set in motion over ten years ago, sparked by an interruption of trust with our customers. At the time, a leader in our organization was indicted for embezzlement, causing NEORSD’s credibility to be questioned and severing the trust and good reputation we’d built over the years in our region. In the face of this breach, we owed it to our customers to develop a more active communications strategy, to reach out to them and show them that this was not the way NEORSD did business, and to find ways to rebuild transparency with our customers.

Start by meeting customers where they are

A starting point for our communications strategy was our commitment to meeting customers where they are. We knew we couldn’t expect customers to show up to community meetings so we could reassure them we had their best interests in mind. We had to find the places where our customers were talking about the issues and show up to engage in those difficult conversations.

Be responsive and transparent

Interestingly, we found the comment sections of our local newspaper’s online articles proved a good channel to demonstrate our responsiveness and transparency with customers. We began to actively respond to media requests and we watched for online articles where we could answer questions, provide more detail and context, clarify misunderstandings, and correct information. 

The tone of the comment sections and news articles began to change, and we noticed less hostility in the conversations. People appreciated us readily jumping in and providing information they sometimes didn’t even realize they were asking for. The experience made us realize we could broaden our reach and have a similar presence on other forums and platforms to help rebuild and maintain a relationship of trust with our customers.

How to build internal trust to have the flexibility to post as you want

Demonstrate to leadership you can engage responsibly online

If you have a lengthy review process, it can hinder your efforts to use social media in the way it’s supposed to be used. Twitter, for example, is meant to be quick, timely, and follow the trends of the moment. The more people have to sign off on a poem or a one-off random reference to a trending meme, the more likely you’ll miss the moment and your post won’t have the same impact.

Ideally, you get to a point where you have enough freedom to be creative, and you don’t have to run every post by leadership before you post it. But the trust you need from leadership to post freely doesn’t happen overnight — that kind of internal trust is earned by being transparent with leadership and demonstrating successes along your journey with social media.

For us, our initial success engaging in our local news comment sections demonstrated to leadership that not only could engage online responsibly, there was a clear benefit and value for customers and our organization. We continued to demonstrate these successes to leadership as we built our presence online.

Give leadership a plan of attack

There’s always going to be inherent risk when posting online. That’s why it’s important for both your communications team and your leadership team to know how you plan to respond to challenges, minimize risks, and maximize benefits. 

Give your leadership a plan for how you’ll manage your social media accounts and how you’ll begin to establish a presence across the channels you intend to work with. Be transparent and keep them updated. Let leadership know if you’re creating content that might be controversial, might walk the line, or is a type of content you haven’t done before. 

Tell leadership your stories of success and make sure they recognize that social media can have an impact. If you face a challenge or failure, let them know, “this didn’t work, but here’s why, and we’re going to try something different.” 

Our leadership has an expectation that the communications team will be communicative and responsive to customers, to inquiries, and use social media channels how they’re meant to be used, with a conversational, personal tone. 

Not every organization will embrace communication in the same way, and that’s a big challenge. But try to split resources up across a few different opportunities where you can find support, where it makes the most sense, and over time, with the appropriate amount of experimentation and demonstrated success, you can build trust internally that gives you more creative freedom over time.

Look for advocates at the leadership level

It helps tremendously to have an advocate in leadership, someone you talk to regularly with a voice at the chief level who supports what you do. We’re fortunate that one of our chief executives directly oversees our communications team. Having her voice of advocacy at the leadership table has been critical. Look for advocates that have a seat at the table.

Celebrate staff on social media

Another way to build great relationships and trust internally is to work with and give attribution to the talents and storytellers in your organization. As you put content together, ask staff for insight, expertise, and stories. 

This kind of creative exchange with staff demonstrates that you value employees’ knowledge and their work and you want to share their story because what they do matters. When you do that, more internal advocates and storytellers will reach out to you because you’re demonstrating they can trust your work. You’ll likely find people are very willing to help support you to get the right information out to the public and help your organization’s reputation in the community.

How to shape content that humanizes utilities

Experiment to find a voice that resonates

Over the years, we’ve experimented with several social media accounts and different kinds of content. Early on, the content we shared was largely what you would expect from a utility’s social media account: board minutes, links to project updates, traffic impacts. It was informational, but it wasn’t necessarily exciting or engaging content.

Around 2015, we began to experiment by using Twitter more as it was designed to be used, as a place to craft content with personality, timely delivery, and quick response times.

We learned from experiments with our mascot Wally Waterdrop’s Twitter account. On Wally’s account we could tweet as a character with a personality, and we noticed he garnered a different kind of engagement from our formal NEORSD account. We thought, why not apply the same approach to the voice of our official NEORSD account and see how it tracks?

Humanizing sewer work

We recognized we had a funny angle that could work to our benefit: sewer humor. We figured anyone who’s ever had a parent spout dad jokes at them would probably have the patience for some toilet jokes in their feed. 

Our experiments with sewer humor on Twitter ended up giving us much more attention than we expected. We’d hit a way to make our work more relatable to our customers, to present what our organization does in a much more human light. It clearly resonated with people, and we suddenly had engagement with our formal Twitter account that simply wasn’t there before.

The uniqueness of sewer humor

Because NEORSD is a sewer utility, we may have more flexibility than a water utility when it comes to applying humor to our social media accounts. We don’t have the same type of service with the same kinds of high-level emergency alerts, for example, which may give us a little more creative freedom. 

But whether you’re crafting content that evokes humor, some emotion, sentiment, or simply removing jargon from the conversation, it moves people towards a better understanding of utility work that most people never even think about.

Guiding principles: Humor, humility, and humanity

If you’re a utility that wants to have success on social media, the best thing you can do is be human in your posts. Be conversational, creative, and use the platform how it’s meant to be used. And if you can combine that with humor, humility, and humanity, you’re going to be able to shape your content with ease and protect yourself when things don’t go perfectly.

Don’t try to do everything at once

Don’t try to do everything at once, but be willing to explore the social media landscape and experiment with your accounts to see what resonates with people. Most of our attention is on our Twitter account because we’ve seen the biggest benefit there, but other social media channels, like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Linkedin, for example, may work better for your service area.

Balance content calendars with spur-of-the-moment trends

When it comes to content calendars, we have a yearly outreach calendar that keeps our eye on monthly events, so we can create content that draws attention to those events. We also have seasonal treatment processes that we highlight on social media, so customers know what’s happening and they have a way to learn more about it. Likewise, we have a podcast, so we try to create content that complements the topics we’ll be covering. 

Beyond that, the approach that has gotten us the most traction is working on the spur of the moment, so we can hit on what people are talking about. Two people in our department closely monitor our social accounts so that we can be responsive in real time.  

Impacts beyond social media

It’s difficult to quantify or track the impact our Twitter account has beyond our direct followers. We know around 60% of our almost 60,000 followers on Twitter are NEORSD customers, and the rest are people beyond our service area. But when you put that into perspective alongside the fact that we serve one million residents in northeast Ohio, it’s a very small percentage of customers seeing our tweets every day. But anecdotally we know our Twitter account is a topic of conversation at events and our employees are proud of the way it shines a light on their work. We know that we educate our followers and gain advocates in the community who then make changes to their behavior and spread the message to others. And we know we’ve raised awareness about our organization’s work on Twitter in a way that we haven’t achieved on other platforms. 

Keep this in mind: social media changes faster than most utilities will be able to create content. New platforms, new controversies, algorithm updates, it can be hard to keep up. Don’t burn yourself out. Always put your communication goals first, and work to determine where current social media trends best suit your agency and your customers. We’ve said elsewhere that our values are not dependent on any one social media platform — social media is simply one place of many where we choose to live them out.

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