Client: Thames Water
PR team: In-house
Timescale: August 2009-July 2010
It costs Thames Water more than £12m to clear about 55,000 blockages each year, with 7,000 homes and gardens in London and the Thames Valley flooding with sewage annually. The problem affects the entire water industry and as a result industry messaging, used year after year, has become tired. Thames Water wanted to take a new approach in highlighting the issue.
- To devise a fresh new campaign to tackle an age-old problem
- To get key messages picked up by national, London and Thames Valley media
- To drive traffic to the campaign website.
Strategy and plan
Thames Water put a customer survey on its website to collect data, and launched the campaign on the back of the results.
Based on the findings that 41 per cent of customers admitted to flushing unsuitable products down toilets, the term 'sewer abuse' was coined. This was followed with a news release and proactive media calls to generate interest.
A photocall was held in London sewers, attended by ITV London and the Press Association, and at a blocked manhole in Reading.
In December, the team made a film of Thames Water flushers, who work in the sewers looking for blockages, dressed in festive hats singing This Christmas Think of Sewermen, a reworked version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
The film was posted on YouTube and touted to news desks with a press release announcing that the Singing Sewermen were aiming for Christmas number one.
ITV1 London re-filmed the Singing Sewermen in action and they also appeared live on BBC Breakfast - the chief flusher also sang live on BBC Scotland on Christmas Eve.
The final move was to invite BBC London and BBC Newsround to see the sewers beneath Leicester Square.
Images from the sewers were sent to news desks with a news release stating up to 1,000 tonnes of fat were being removed - the equivalent of nine bus loads.
Measurement and evaluation
In total, 101 pieces of coverage appeared across broadcast media, national and regional press and online.
Highlights included appearances in five episodes of ITV1's Grimefighters, the Singing Sewermen live on BBC Breakfast and pieces in The Sun, Daily Mail and the Metro.
A campaign section on the Thames Water website received more than 9,000 hits and more than 800 people took part in the survey.
The launch and Christmas activity resulted in 42 mentions across social media, including in 19 blogs and reaching 2,901 people on Twitter.
There were more than 150,000 Singing Sewermen film hits on BBC News Online. In addition, there were 4,200 hits on YouTube, 1,000 hits on Thames Water's website and 400 hits on Flickr.
HAMISH THOMPSON, Managing director, Twelve Thirty Eight
I remembered this campaign immediately. It is dead easy to assume that what goes down the sink goes to some magical location a zillion miles away and that everything below our feet is working perfectly.
Thames Water's PR team exposed an uncomfortable and unpalatable truth - that what goes down tends to hang around.
The campaign exposed this truth in a pretty horrifying visual way, most memorably by providing broadcast access, quantifying the problem, getting right in there with the cameras and choosing times of the year when the problem is most acute, all injected with a bit of humour.
The Leicester Square story was perhaps the hardest-hitting example: the mental images of bus loads of collected waste made it sound as though tourists were unwittingly shuffling above a Yosemite-style caldera of nastiness. I've changed my route a couple of times since.
It feels churlish to suggest other things that might have been done when the campaign made such an impact and a poll of my colleagues points to near-100 per cent awareness, but I guess a bit more visual focus on the domestic rather than the aggregate might have been a way of changing behaviour.
That said, campaigns such as this span years and no doubt this is something to which Thames Water will return. To its credit - and I guess this is the ultimate measure - the campaign was a real talking point in our house and I can honestly say that it made us change our habits for the better.