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Sydney Water nets major awards for clever customer engagement campaign

A low-budget customer engagement campaign has netted Sydney Water numerous awards, helped propel an international movement, and delivered significant benefits to customers and the environment.

The 'Keep wipes out of pipes' campaign recently picked up two trophies at the Mumbrella CommsCon Awards for 2017 – Best Government Sponsored PR Campaign and Best Corporate Social Responsibility PR Campaign.

Sydney Water also won the Australian Water Association's ‘NSW Program Innovation Award’.

Senior Media and PR Advisor at Sydney Water Peter Hadfield said the education program had achieved major impact for minimal spend.

“We ran this campaign just through our own internal resources here at Sydney Water with pretty much zero budget; we didn't call in external PR agencies or ad agencies,” he said.

The gongs came on the back of international recognition for the campaign last year, when the utility was awarded the Corporate Social Responsibility PR Campaign of the Year at the Asia-Pacific Communications Summit in October.

Hadfield said the campaign's early success came once it shifted to a more customer-centric message.

“Our campaign initially was around educating our customers not to flush wipes for the betterment of Sydney Water – it was costing us about $8 million a year to remove [about 500 tonnes] of wipes from our network,” he said.

“Then we realised that was the wrong tactic, so we changed it from a corporate PR campaign to a corporate social responsibility campaign. We thought we should be more concerned about the problems that our individual customers are facing, rather than being primarily concerned about the problems that wipes were causing for Sydney Water.”

Since the program began, customer sentiment surveys have shown a 50% reduction in people who think it’s okay to flush wipes.

Hadfield said the campaign benefited significantly from utilising a broad range of channels and generating case studies.

“Through social media we asked people to send in their wipes horror stories. One woman sent in photographs of her entire backyard dug up, and she said something along the lines of 'this was my wet wipes experience: a $16,000 plumbers bill caused by wet wipes',” he said.

“We had young parents calling in to say they'd been using flushable wipes for new bubs and they were being stung by plumbing bills from hundreds of dollars through to thousands.

“The engaging thing here was people were being hit in their pocket when they were just doing what the labels on these flushable wipes were saying. Our customers felt a little bit cheated by the branding.”

Importantly, the campaign also gained traction in trade publications, the mainstream media and with various influential organisations, including consumer advocacy group CHOICE, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the International Water Association.

“There has been consumer confusion as many wet wipes are branded ‘flushable’, but our tests and independent tests undertaken by CHOICE and an accredited lab have demonstrated that even flushable branded wipes are not flushable at all," Hadfield said.

“In December the ACCC instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against two major wipes manufacturers, alleging that they each made false or misleading representation in relation to ‘flushable’ wipes they marketed and supplied in Australia.”

The fact that the campaign messaging has also been adopted internationally is a testament to the support the campaign has received, Hadfield said.

“Now more than 300 organisations from 23 countries have signed up to a position statement to keep wipes out of pipes,” he said.

“When it was sent out, it hit 200 [signatories] within a couple of days, and then it climbed to 300 within a week or two.

“Our message has been consistent: asking the public to put wipes in the bin and not to flush them.”

Hadfield added that the only things that should ever be flushed are the three P’s: “Pee, Poo and (toilet) Paper”.

Representatives from Sydney Water and other Australian utilities will share their insights on how they keep customers at the heart of everything they do at the upcoming Ozwater’17 conference in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here.