Improving the public image of drainage
How can contractors engage with their community?
By Jacqui Empson Laporte
What is the public image of drainage? I asked this question to an audience of drainage contractors when I spoke at the 2019 Land Improvement Contractors of Ontario (LICO) annual conference during my presentation on social license for the drainage industry.
There is not just one public image of drainage. Agricultural clients may have the view that drainage is a practice that is beneficial, or rather, vital for growing crops. Others have suggested we’ve focused too much on drainage and not enough on soil health. Some of the general public understands tile drainage can mitigate the effects of water erosion, while others believe tile drainage is to blame for nutrient loading into water. In 2017, research from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity indicated only 34 percent of respondents felt Canadian farmers were good stewards of the environment. So where does that leave drainage contractors?
What the public thinks is becoming increasingly important. In an article about social license published in Farm and Food Care Ontario’s booklet, “The Real Dirt on Farming,” Ted Menzies, Canadian politician, said, “Farmer – and industry – must now rely on public trust for their right to operate . . . their social license.”
The article defines social license as “The level of public trust granted to a corporate entity or industry sector by the community at large and its key consumer base. Public trust is the belief that activities are consistent with social expectations and the values of stakeholders, and earned through industry engagement, operating practices, and expressed values.”
Industry tacitly garners public trust by doing what is “right.” The difficulty of social license is that it’s difficult to gain and easy to lose. It constantly changes with societal values and expectations. It involves those who aren’t your target audience, leaving you to work harder to sell the value of your service. You might be the best drainage contractor around but public relations and marketing are a different skill set.
The difficulty of social license is that it’s difficult to gain and easy to lose.
More difficult yet, social license is not an individual action or responsibility – it is industry wide. For those in Ontario, the general public will not likely draw a distinction between a farmer doing their own tile drainage and a licensed contractor who has invested time and resources into training and licensing. One botched job in your sector can bring you all down.
So what do we do? Here are some ideas:
- Get involved in projects that garner a lot of public attention from non-traditional audiences, like wetland construction projects or community agriculture initiatives. Let people know that the drainage industry is not just “feet of tile installed,” but part of a more complicated erosion control/water quality/agricultural sustainability initiative.
- Meet the researchers involved in soil health and water quality at your local educational institution. They are usually looking for partners or sites to help with technical expertise. Show them the value of your experiences in the field.
- Talk to people about your work. Public speaking may not be your forte, but there are many programs available to gain more experience with presentation skills. Public speaking also allows you to dispel myths about drainage. You don’t have to jump into formal lectures right away; there are many events where the audience gathers in the field or around the equipment. This is familiar territory where you can excel.
- Recognize opportunities when they arise. Events such as ditch or river clean ups, or those geared towards controlling invasive species, are prime opportunities to meet people concerned about the environment and who are involved in small, but important activities to help. You could organize or sponsor these events, in return for a chance to talk about the ways that drainage assists in their cause.
- Consider passive forms of marketing. Those in agriculture will recognize a tile drainage project by the telltale signs and patterns in the soil. The general public, however, may see agricultural productivity at the expense of water quality or habitat loss – or maybe they’ll see nothing at all. Next time you do a project, consider putting up a sign pointing out some of the benefits from the project:
• Will it reduce water erosion
• Is tile drainage being used in with other best management practices, such as berms?
• Is the drainage paired with another cropping practice, like reduced tillage or cover crops, that the general public wouldn’t know about?
- These signs also pose an opportunity for brand recognition. Remember that social license is a collective responsibility, not individual. What if contractors got together to promote the professionalism or benefits of all of their projects as a collective? This would also divide the rogues of the industry from those that are innovative and engaged.
Remember: there is a story to tell. You can either tell the story and control the messages, or someone will tell it for you. Recognize where the industry is lagging and take steps in your LICO/LICA organization to change it.
Jacqui Empson Laporte is an environmental specialist and a member of the drainage team for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. She is also a director on the board of Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario, and is responsible for managing projects related to Lake Huron water quality. Her interest is the design of environmental programs.