Making Government Work

How San Francisco Got Its Residents to Care About Sewers

January 21, 2014
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How San Francisco Got Its Residents to Care About Sewers
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Hint: A little toilet humor can go a long way.

After a huge sinkhole opened up in San Francisco’s Richmond District, city officials knew they had to come up with a way to sell residents on a massive upgrade to the city’s outdated sewer systems.

The Sewer System Improvement Program is a 20-year, multi-billion dollar project to update the ecologically unsound and dated treatment plants, while shoring up the whole system from the threat of future earthquakes. But officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission worried that a boring PSA wouldn’t be sufficient to communicate the urgency of the undertaking.

In October, the Commission launched a new advertising campaign that used humor to inform San Franciscans about the sewer project. The ads read as notes from the San Francisco Sewer System, and included text such as “Your #2 is my #1,” “No one deals with more crap than I do” and “You can’t live a day without me.” They worked. The Commission’s social media reach has expanded and conversations have started on Twitter and Facebook about making the city’s major watersheds more green. Attendance at the department’s public planning forums is up too, with roughly 80 people attending, and tours of the city’s treatment plants booked months in advance.

“It’s about how you approach the problem, not about how much money you have,” Tyrone Jue, the Commission’s director of communications, told Fast Company. “The advertising campaign, yes, it costs money. [But] it’s a choice every agency has to make, whether you’re small or large. You engage with people in different manners … People want that transparency and openness out of their government; it creates community.”

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