Everyone likes to have their hard work acknowledged. When Thames Water's three-strong comms team won PRWeek's Most Entrepreneurial In-House PR Team award in June 2010, it was worthy recognition of the work it had achieved with limited staff and zero budget.
Thames Water had impressed the judges with its effective and creative PR at a time when its resources had been cut. This included the daily firefighting against burst-pipe stories and endless roadworks, while also preparing itself for industry regulator Ofwat's price review. Thames Water's strategy consisted of explaining the need for price rises to journalists, as well as finding good news stories to keep balanced coverage.
With the award came £15,000 worth of PR support from integrated PR agency Launch Group, which had sponsored the awards. So, more than a year on, we look back to see what kind of a boost winning the award and the subsequent PR consultancy provided for the utility company.
Simon Evans, media relations manager at Thames Water (pictured above with comms team colleagues Becky Johnson, left, and Amy Dutton), says: 'Without wanting to sound big-headed, we won the award because we had done a pretty good job. But to have outside PR help was an added bonus.
'We serve 14 million customers; we have the London Evening Standard invigilating our performance day by day, so life can be pretty hectic,' says Evans. 'It was good to get Launch to force us to "take five" and think about what we do.'
The Launch team that worked with Thames Water included director of integration Andy Nash, senior account manager Katrina Brady, and group account director Jackie Quilter. Johnny Pitt, CEO of Launch Group, says: 'Thames Water was quite open and clear about what it wanted to achieve, which was useful in delivering results.'
Consultancy work consisted of a number of elements. One was a social media workshop covering topics such as optimised PR, Twitter interaction and keyword optimised content to help Thames with its social media strategy (see box). Another was a creative facilitation session that resulted in a story that was subsequently sold-in to the media.
'We used a blackboard and various games to prompt the best, most creative and innovative ideas. We had some really nutty ideas but fizzy water was worth a crack,' explains Evans.
This was one creative PR leap on from Thames' already-established London on Tap scheme. This gives Londoners a choice between bottled water and tap water when they visit a restaurant.
'We distribute our specially designed "Tap Top" carafes - they are attractive with four little spouts on top - and then we urge restaurants to serve our fine tap water in the vessel. We try to be as sensitive to the bottled water fraternity as possible, but opting for tap water is kinder on the wallet and the environment,' says Evans.
So the fizzy water creative concept - dubbed Sparkling Thames - was about taking this one stage further and carbonating tap water, with the help of Thames Water's specialist water tasters. This could then be bottled and offered in restaurants as an alternative to sparkling mineral water.
To secure publicity, Launch needed a willing 'name' to become involved. 'Aldo Zilli's restaurant is just around the corner from our offices at Launch, in Soho, so the team simply went in and approached him. He found it a compelling initiative and we signed him up,' says Pitt.
The explicit aim had been to create positive news coverage. The Sparkling Thames story was covered in 20 articles, reaching 7.3 million people. 'With relatively limited resources, in terms of London and the South East being the target of the focus, the output was very strong,' says Pitt.
For Evans, it was a rare moment to enjoy a non-critical Thames Water story in its press nemesis. 'It was a fun idea and the main thing was the positive coverage in the Evening Standard. Getting a soft, good news story such as this in the paper was a real achievement and for Launch to have done that was a great result,' he says.
However, the Sparkling Thames trial will not be rolled out further. 'It turns out customers prefer traditional still tap water,' admits Evans.
One unexpected bonus of winning the Most Entrepreneurial In-House Team award was the additional kudos it gave Evans and his team within Thames Water.
Whereas previously his managers had been unwilling to invest in monthly evaluations, now they are getting these from monitoring service Precise.
'The award gave us a little more clout in the firm and we now have a monthly evaluation report. We can see what we have to do to get the sentiment percentages into the "balanced" and "positive" areas rather than the "negative",' says Evans.
'We always give a comment, no matter what the story, and try and get on the front foot rather than waiting for the phone to ring.'
SOCIAL MEDIA - Tapping into Twitter
Thames Water started its social media strategy in 2008 by dabbling in Twitter, using it as a news channel and a way to promote London on Tap. But as Amy Dutton, Thames Water's digital comms executive, explains: 'We quickly learned that's not how it works.'
'It was a useful PR tool but it quickly developed into a customer service tool,' she says. 'Last winter, the weather massively affected our water pipes and we needed customers to report leaks as soon as possible, so we launched Tweet-a-leak.'
Dutton also took part in CommsChat on Twitter - an online forum where journalists, comms specialists and others can discuss topics - gleaning insider tips and discovering 'the unwritten rules'. With the help of Launch, the team developed a better tone of voice for this medium.
Thames Water also established a dedicated digital department - of which Dutton is one of three staff - within corporate comms at the beginning of the year.
This team manages the website, social media activity and mobile sites under development.