Hearts and minds: Communicating in the time of climate change – An Interview With Bruce Roll
We recently talked with Bruce Roll from Clean Water Services in Oregon about their smart communication strategy, a game-changer for their watershed restoration program.
What made you realize that the communications dimension was so important to your watershed restoration program?
Utilities are often working in a regulatory framework and what evolved out of the regulatory framework – is its own lingo, acronyms. Clearly, as you move toward opportunities for [water quality] trading and broader green infrastructure, you move into arenas that are outside the boundaries of the Clean Water Act and are touching people for a variety of other reasons. We learned early on that it is often difficult to talk to a parks open space employee or a farmer, from the perspective of a Clean Water Act obligation.
We figured out a few years ago that we needed to retool how we talked about the work we did, and how we talk about it with a whole variety of different partners, whether it’s federal agencies, like US Fish and Wildlife, or NRCS or FSA or the conservation districts. We also wanted to make sure we were consistent with the messaging for parks open space people, the cities and those kinds of things.
What were some of the choices that you made to leverage that communications dimension for key audiences?
I think we can all agree that Power Point is rather worn out. It also doesn’t inspire interesting thinking. So part of it was how do we reframe, how do we visually as well as emotionally engage the partners and other people. Clearly, we needed to move away from what is usually the standard – throw Power Point up there and lecture people.
So how should we be communicating with school children? How should we be communicating with farmers? And with that, how should that message be laid out? Should it be coming from us? Should it be coming from others? One of the key things that we figured out was that it needed to be coming from other perspectives, or people that were partnering with us. So we had a lot of…at the time we called it third party verification. But what that did was spawn new ways of thinking about communications. So moving from web to video-based education and outreach stuff was huge.
We were looking for new ways to get these messages out that are simplistic and consistent with the 30-second or 2-minute time span that we all have these days with social media.
We produced several videos that are a series of interviews with different perspectives, whether it’s parks open space, the natural areas people or the farmers. The videos became a very powerful tool, because instead of listening to us talk about what we perceived as the issue and the reaction on the ground, we could actually show them what the reaction on the ground was.
We’ve also moved our presentations from 30 Power Point slides per presentation, down to one or two with a series of pictures and turned it more into a conversation about what we are trying to do.
Who are your key audiences, and how did you determine that they were your key audiences?
Unlike a lot of utilities, we decided from early on in the program that the long-term success of these programs was going to be driven by people in the community that actually wanted these programs on their property. We recognized that if we were going to have a successful agricultural program, it really needed to be an integral part of existing agricultural programs and the fabric of the conservation district and NRCS.
So the farmers were an example. By doing that, now we have an inter-local agreement with the conservation district, and they, in essence, implement the farming program throughout the entire basin. So now, we see these parks and open space people looking at us as one of the pillars in restoring these lands back to a functioning ecological system.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a utility about starting to develop or reframe their communications strategy, what would it be?
Well, it is interesting. We knew that we weren’t capturing the messages appropriately for the farmers. We knew we weren’t doing it appropriately for the school kids and the others. We knew we had to retool.
We realized we had to recognize how our communication was being received and translated on the ground. And it was clear to me that if we wanted a larger, collective impact style model, we needed to broaden and strengthen the language between all of the different partners that were out there.
So you can do the one-trick pony and say, “I have a utility, I want to control the project and I want to do it all.”
Or you can say to yourself, “I can utilize my contribution as one piece of the larger puzzle. To play and to work in that larger puzzle requires different ways of communicating needs and wants across the landscape.”
The question becomes, how do you work in environments that are historically opposing, not necessarily collaborative? And it strikes me that rethinking how you talk across two opposing views to create a common language really gets at the heart of your ability to bring together the collective impact model.
If you want to open people’s minds, you have to first open their hearts. So we’re bringing that human context to the conversation along with core community values, like by showing a child playing with a frog, or seeing something successful happen in a park.
Our videos engage people around their values, and what it means to participate in a great opportunity to contribute to their community.
Bruce is the Director of Watershed Management for Clean Water Services (CWS) and the nonprofit Clean Water Institute in Hillsboro, Oregon. CWS received EPA’s first integrated Watershed-based permit and currently manages the largest utility water quality trading program in the United States. Prior to joining Clean Water Services, Bruce served as the Assistant Director for Whatcom County Public Works in Washington State for eight years where he oversaw Watershed Management, Salmon Recovery, Marine Resource, River and Flood and Solid Waste Programs. In addition, Bruce also worked for the Portland Water District in Portland, Maine for five years where he was the Director of Water Resources and Laboratory Services. Bruce attended Colorado State University where he received a BS In Environmental Microbiology. In addition, Bruce received a MS and PhD from the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Hawaii and a MPH in Management from the School of Public Health. Bruce has served as a peer reviewer and technical consultant for the American Water Works Association Standard Methods Committee and the American Water Works Research Foundation. Bruce was actively involved in the development of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan where he was appointed to the Shared Strategy Steering and Oversight Committee.
Photo Credit: Clean Water Services