If mastering the art of social media were a poker game, John Gonzalez would have a royal “flush” in hand.
As the Communications Manager for Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD), Gonzalez spends much of his day Tweeting about everything from not-so-flushable wipes to stormwater selfies to “halftime dumps” during the Super Bowl, aka “Sewer Bowl.” In the process, he’s helped make the NEORSD Twitter account a local celebrity of sorts.
“Social media needs to be engaging, educational, or entertaining—we’ve found a niche focusing more on the entertainment value,” says Gonzalez, who manages all of NEORSD’s social media accounts including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. “Our hope is that it resonates with people and allows them to stop as they’re scrolling through the feed and see something relevant to them.”
According to Social Bearing, NEORSD has sent out 400 Tweets during the last 25 days and received over 1.2 million impressions during that time—which Gonzalez says is a new high. But he’s quick to point out that it’s not just him who deserves the credit for making a public utility district relatable, but the NEORSD organization and its communications team as a whole.
“I’m fortunate to be given the opportunity to engage with customers in a way that other utilities might not, and I appreciate that they’re willing to take that risk,” says Gonzalez. “It speaks to what our organization is willing to do to reach its customers.”
Rain barrel outside NEORSD's officesNEORSD’s quirky social media presence not only helps catch customers’ attention in the noisy online sphere, but also helps bring attention to important initiatives. By plugging into buzzy topics like the Super Bowl or Valentine’s Day—or just using online buzzwords and humor—Gonzalez is able to further the public's understanding of rate increases, the company’s regional stormwater management program, and campaigns like Pick Up Poop! (PUP) and Project Clean Lake.
“We’re a faceless entity in a lot of ways, so people don’t realize all the ways we are present in their life every day,” says Gonzalez, who has been working at NEORSD since 2000. (He first started as an intern while studying English at Baldwin Wallace University.) “By [focusing on] whatever is trending, we can effectively connect our clean water work with whatever is relevant to them.”
This informal, fun approach to social media is part of a larger online trend sparked by companies like Wendy’s and even inanimate objects like Lake Superior. Gonzalez says that NEORSD started to turn its efforts toward social media around 2010 by interacting with customers in Cleveland.com forums, and it grew from there. He adds that they were also inspired by other public utility districts like DC Water and KCMO Water, which were “using creative ways to connect with customers.”
“I see our account as an extension of a real person, not just an automated Tweet reply. We’re listening, we’re active and available, and we’re here to serve you.”
Along with the social media efforts, NEORSD also seeks ways to engage with its customers in person. The organization has struck up partnerships and event sponsorships with Cleveland Museum of Natural History, City Club, and Children's Museum of Cleveland, and also hosts the annual #CleanWaterFest, an open house event which attracted more than 3,000 people last year to tour the facility and learn more about its efforts.
NEORSD is also currently mounting its #RiverReborn campaign in line with the Cuyahoga50 celebration. "We want to highlight the ways the river has been a boon for the region and an inspiration for so many advancements related to environmental health," says Gonzalez.
In other words, don't look for the humorous Tweets and creative takes to stop any time soon. "It's all about raising awareness," says Gonzalez. "If that’s one foot in the door, taking a step further in the conversation becomes that much easier."