06 June 2018

How Sydney Water created an international award winning PR campaign with zero budget

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How do you create an award winning PR campaign, achieve significant regulatory and customer behaviour changes with basically a zero budget?

You get plenty of help!

The increased use of wet wipes by consumers over the past few years caused a significant headache for Sydney Water and other utilities around Australia, and in fact around the globe.

In the recent past, Sydney Water was removing each year over 500 tonnes of wet wipes from the 675 pumping stations in our 25,000km network at an annual cost in the $millions. 

Wet wipes blockages were also causing environmental problems by creating overflows into creeks, waterways and the ocean.

After conducting some basic research as to who and why people were flushing wipes in 2014, Sydney Water launched the ‘Keep wipes out of pipes’ campaign in mid-2015.

A number of wipes manufacturers supplying the Australian market were claiming that their products were flushable and some were also claiming on their packaging that flushable wipes break down in the same manner as toilet paper.

Testing undertaken in Sydney Water’s accredited lab proved otherwise.

Manufacturers were claiming 3 hours for their flushable wipes to break down. We stopped the test in our labs at 21 hours and the so called flushable wipes were still in pristine condition and hadn’t broken down at all.

We had no PR or mainstream advertising budget available so were unable to engage any agency support. Our only budget was to cover customer research, some artwork creation and printing costs for the production of a limited range of education collateral.

The key to the success of the ‘Keep wipes out of wipes’ campaign was to proactively create alliances with influential stakeholders to spread the word, like Australian consumer advocate group CHOICE and the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC).

To develop a truly Australia wide campaign, the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), the umbrella association for all Australian water and wastewater utilities was became an enthusiastic supporter.

Sydney Water also took a lead position on an International Water Association (IWA) campaign to keep wipes out of the pipes across the globe – and had a place at the table on the IWA Committee to determine an international standard of the flushability of flushable wipes.

Building engagement with our 2500 staff through empowerment was an important element in the communications program.

We ran a campaign which was conducted through school groups and public forums to educate them to keep wipes out of pipes.

We even met directly with Kimberly Clark, Australia’s market leading wipes manufacturer who make Kleenex brand flushable wipes and other wipes products.

We also engaged with individual plumbers and the national plumbers’ association through their national magazine ‘Plumbers Connect’.

Importantly, our major success was to engage with our Sydney Water customers and other consumers across Australia through a comprehensive social media campaign.

We focused on the problems that flushing wet wipes had on customer’s sewer pipes, and the costs that they would bear as private citizens, to repair their sewer pipes on their property and asked them to tell us their flushable wipes ‘nightmare stories’. 

Our campaign motivated customers to become advocates and to directly confront the wipes manufacturers through social media.

We were initially focused on Sydney customers but realised very quickly that this was a problem across Australia and right around the globe.

We created three tags which we constantly repeated across the campaign and we rolled out the campaign in every channel imaginable.

The keep wipes out of pipes campaign has achieved some amazing results, being picked up by over 300 organisations across the globe from 23 countries and winning the Asia Pacific Communications CSR PR Campaign of the Year in 2016 and two Mumbrella Comms Con Awards for the CSR and Government categories in 2017.

There has been demonstrated behavioural change - consumer sentiment surveys undertaken by Sydney Water have shown a 50% reduction in people who think it’s OK to flush wipes.

Australian property developers and insurance companies are using elements of the ‘Keep wipes out of pipes’ campaign and the Federal Court has ordered Pental to pay penalties totalling $700,000, for making false and misleading representations about its White King ‘flushable’ toilet and bathroom cleaning wipes, and there is more Federal Court action to follow.

The little guy can beat the big guys. “You don’t have to be big to think big and to achieve big things!” …And you don’t need a big budget! You just need to work in a smart way and you need to leverage all the help you can get to achieve the outcome you are striving for.

Peter Hadfield will present on the topic of "How Sydney Water created an international award winning PR campaign with zero budget" at the Corporate Communications Leadership Forum in Melbourne 27-29 June 2018.

Stay tuned for information on the upcoming Corporate Communications Leadership Forum @ Akolade Aust 

Written by: Peter Hadfield

Peter Hadfield is the Senior Media and Public Relations Advisor for Sydney Water, Australia’s largest water utility. He has worked in Communications, PR and Media for over 30 years. 

Follow me on LinkedIn @ Peter Hadfield

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