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Why Do I Follow a Sewer District on Twitter?
The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District's Twitter is perfect.
There’s really no reason that I should be following the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District on Twitter. I live in California and have absolutely no connection to the public utility district that manages three wastewater treatment facilities and all of the interceptor sewers in NE Ohio. And yet I am one of the account’s over 43,000 avid followers—liking tweets about toilet paper, elections, and graduation speeches.
Today’s interview feels like the third part in my unofficial series about how no industry is too boring for an amazing social presence. (Part one with US Consumer Product Safety Commission is here and part two with NYC Department of Sanitation is here.) I spoke with John Gonzalez, Communications Manager at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, about using humor to build trust, focusing on the humanity of your service, and more. It’s a read that’s as delightful as the Twitter account itself.
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Rachel Karten: First, can you tell me about your current job and any past social (or not!) jobs you've had?
John Gonzalez: I’ve been with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s communications department for more than 20 years. As Communications Manager currently I oversee our internal comms and also work closely with our Community Relations team as the social media coordinator. We grew our own social media presence in house, and with no previous social media training, I’m fortunate to have been granted the support to explore these platforms as extensions of our outreach efforts.
RK: You started the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Twitter account in 2010, right? That's a long time ago in social media terms! What prompted you to start the account?
JG: Right about that time. In the same era we were managing reputation and trust issues with customers due to several challenges and upcoming initiatives. Warranted concerns that needed to be addressed and remedied. But rather than simply hosting meetings and expecting customers to show up we instead went to the places where people were already talking about our work.
One of those places was the newspaper, the online edition’s comment boards back then were full of our customers responding to articles that gave only partial insight into our work. We felt if we could join that discussion, it might offer a more complete perspective. So we did. I created a “John at NEORSD” profile on these forums and engaged commenters with the help of our subject matter experts. The response was helpful and built some trust amongst former detractors.
That approach proved that we could build a community and improve service and transparency and trust by going where customers were: social media.
RK: How has your strategy on the account changed over time? Has humor always been an important element?
Our social strategy was built on timeliness, transparency, and trust. Humor was not an initial mechanism in the 2010 era but we found that personality helped make our hidden utility service more real for customers. And as a sewer utility, we used humor elsewhere in our outreach, but social media became a prime venue for that voice and it has resonated well with our followers.
RK: Was there a post or moment when you noticed the account was gaining traction outside of Northeast Ohio? I feel like your audience is from all over at this point!
JG: More than half of our Twitter followers are Ohioans but yes our following crosses the country. We have built great relationships with other utilities and our approach has opened many eyes to the wonders and essential nature of infrastructure. We think that reality and our humanity-based approach to messaging has broadened our appeal.
RK: Talk to me about your use of humor. What's so great is that it never feels like the tweet is completely out of nowhere. It always somehow ties back to sewers, even if you don't think it will.
JG: All our tweets need to have a tie back to infrastructure. In one way that’s easy, because infrastructure affects every aspect of our lives, even experiences tied to the outside seemingly unconnected world. But before I tweet I always make sure I can link something in it back to sewers, stormwater, or water infrastructure. The link is always there; we embrace the creative way to connect the dots for our followers.
RK: How do you balance humor with using the account to get across important information?
JG: Humor and humanity have helped us build trust. When we have trust, customers are more likely to reach out to us when they have questions. Similarly, when we have an impactful project in a community, trust helps assure residents that we care about delivering our best work to minimize disruption to them. People know when we’re tweeting in the moment. They also come to know when we are reporting on projects—our tweets include real information that’s relevant to them and the lives they are living.
RK: A lot of people would say that running a Twitter account for a sewer district would be boring or hard to gain traction. Do you have any advice for people who maybe think they aren't in a cool enough industry to have an amazing social presence?
JG: Utility work can be boring because it’s a service people expect should just work. They don’t want to have to think about whether they can flush their toilet, they just expect it to go away. But by engaging followers, we’re introducing them to amazing people and projects and innovations that make that essential service possible. Share the stories that make your work human, and share how your work affects the humans that rely on your service. Maybe that’s with humor, maybe not. But if you can be responsive and honest in your interactions, that is a great place to start focusing on the humanity of your service: by focusing on the humans you are serving.
RK: What's a post that you're particularly proud of?
JG: There are several. We tweeted a 700-tweet-long thread thanking every single one of our employees to end 2020. We’ve tweeted non-traditional acknowledgements of holidays like MLK Day to show that we think about diversity and inclusion differently than typical brand accounts. We’ve inspired customers to call us with tears in their eyes thanking us for making real connections on our social media.
RK: Where do you see the @neorsd Twitter account in 5 years?
JG: Who knows. We’ll probably still be here but we know social media is always changing. We’ll continue exploring the latest trending platforms to see which ones serve us and our customers best. We’ll also try to improve our presence on the lasting platforms that hold a lot of our content. We need to be flexible to ensure we reach customers where they are.