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Agencies may just have to hold their noses to spin this water campaign

How’s this for a challenge? Today is the deadline for public relations firms and advertising agencies to submit ideas for a campaign promoting the wonders of Minneapolis tap water.

Trouble is, the water stinks to high heaven.

The city assures consumers that its tap water is perfectly safe — safer and more environmentally responsible than the bottled brands. Indeed, it has begun spending $140 million to ensure the water’s safety and quality, including the 2005 installment of state-of-the-art ultra-filtration technology.

But to anyone with a nose it’s apparent that the city’s state-of-the-art equipment isn’t  sophisticated enough to filter out bad odors from leaves, algae and other organic matter that build up in the Mississippi River each year as the weather gets warmer.

Fixing the problem with granular-activated carbon, as St. Paul does, isn’t in the immediate picture. So the city is offering a $180,000 contract to any PR or ad agency that can convince the public that there’s no problem at all.

The official RFP (request for proposals) (PDF) was posted on the city’s website on June 20. Requests are due today at 4 p.m.

According to the document, the purpose of the campaign is to persuade suburban communities to buy water from Minneapolis, and to convince ordinary people that it’s cool to drink tap water.

The city says it wants to emphasize “awareness and confidence” that Minneapolis tap water is “pure, safe, great-tasting and environmentally-friendly.”

The audience for this campaign will be residents, visitors and potential suburban customers, the RFP says. It states that “Minneapolis’ water is among the best in the nation, following the opening of its modern ultra-filtration plant that cleans water well beyond federal standards.” The new plant, it says, is the largest of its type in the Western Hemisphere and can filter out particles “as small as some viruses.”

Unfortunately, as every Minneapolis water drinker knows, it can’t filter out the stink.

City spokesman Matt Laible said that hundreds of complaints have come into the city’s 311 line as well as to the water works. He emphasized to me the temporary but perennial nature of the odor problem — and agreed that the timing of drawing bids for the promotional campaign might not be the best.

The winning agency has its work cut out. This job ranks with maybe convincing consumers that New Coke was better than Classic Coca-Cola or that Richard Nixon wasn’t really a crook.

“It’ll be a tough job,” said Jeanne Carpenter of Perceptions INK, a Minneapolis firm that did not submit a proposal. “You think for a minute, ‘We could do that,’ then you get to the tap for a glass of water and, yow! When perception doesn’t come close to matching reality, well, it’s a difficult business.”

Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He also has a non-water-related consulting contract with the city of Minneapolis.

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