Is King County Wastewater's $113,000 PR Campaign Effective or Just More Symbolism?

July 15, 2014

King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) has a problem. People are flushing things they shouldn't, costing King County taxpayers $120,000 a year to fish out (yuk) and transfer the trash to a landfill.

Now King County WTD is trying to highlight the problem and cut those costs with a new PR campaign. Called "Flushing Awesome," the effort includes a web page and a rap song (what is it with government rap videos?) telling people not to flush the trash.

What did it cost to develop this campaign? I asked King County WTD, via Twitter, how much the campaign cost. Here is the exchange that ensued.

The evasiveness is a bit annoying and they never actually confirm the cost, choosing the more opaque "$7k less than a year of tipping fees." They know the cost. Why not just say so? It seems clear, however, that the cost of the campaign is about $113,000.

Despite the evasiveness, they are polite enough to thank me for "helping us get the word out" about the effort.

As a former Communications Director for a state agency, I know the problem with these sorts of campaigns is that they often cost a lot and yield very little. Government agencies often spend money to "raise awareness," a vague formulation that allows them to justify any cost without being held accountable for tangible results.

This campaign provides an opportunity to actually test the effectiveness of money spent on government PR campaigns since they have clearly stated the cost of the problem and their goal.

To justify spending $113,000, King County WTD says it is $7,000 less than the tipping fees, $120,000, for all that trash. Over the next year, therefore, the campaign must reduce the trash in the system by 94 percent to break even.

King County WTD makes a vague (again, why can't they be clear?) reference to "other ops costs" in addition to tipping fees. So, perhaps the 94 percent bar is too high. Certainly, however, it must be extremely effective for this effort to make a difference.

So, here's what we will do. At the end of the year, we will see what the annualized costs of trash removal are after the campaign began compared to last year. If trash fees have fallen dramatically, the campaign will look like an effective approach. If they have not, it will be yet another waste of taxpayer dollars on a silly government rap video.

If it turns out the campaign falls far short of saving money, King County WTD will claim the benefits of the campaign will pay off in the long run. We can test that too. If the difference in tipping fees between this year and last remains consistent month after month, then King County WTD will be correct - the campaign will have long-term benefits. If, however, the month-to-month difference between this year and last declines over time, the campaign's effects probably won't make up the cost.

Too much of environmental policy is symbolism, using taxpayer dollars to demonstrate piety without actually helping the environment. Unless King County WTD's campaign causes a dramatic reduction in flushed trash, this will be another example of that trend.