Bottled water industry efforts counter criticism

ALEXANDRIA, VA: The bottled water industry has recently amplified its PR efforts because of increasing criticism from organizations and politicians that claim bottled water has misleading labels and is of inferior quality to municipal water systems.

ALEXANDRIA, VA: The bottled water industry has recently amplified its PR efforts because of increasing criticism from organizations and politicians that claim bottled water has misleading labels and is of inferior quality to municipal water systems.

For the past month, trade groups the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) and the American Beverage Association (ABA) have been working together on heavy media outreach, blog monitoring, SMTs, and TV, newspaper, and radio interviews.

"It's been a busy three weeks," said Joe Doss, IBWA president and CEO, noting that the situation also represents an opportunity. "It's a way for us to get our thoughts out and tell consumers what we're doing."

According to the Beverage Marketing Corp., Americans consumed 8.2 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006, generating $10.9 billion in revenue for producers. Both numbers are up more than 8.5% from 2005.

The issues first arose earlier this summer when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he would begin prohibiting his city's departments and agencies from purchasing bottled water. Salt Lake City followed suit, and New York City recently began running a campaign promoting the quality of its own water. And now, Pepsi, the manufacturer of top-selling US bottled water Aquafina, has announced it will begin labeling bottles of Aquafina to clearly identify its source.

Doss said the IBWA is working to spread its message that bottled water is safe and healthy, and any efforts by any group to discourage its consumption are not in the public's best interest. He noted that the association's three-person communications staff and he are working with undisclosed agencies that have aided the organization in the past.

Doss said an integral part of the communications effort was the monitoring of blogs and comments from other groups. "It's not that hard [to monitor the organizations]," he said. "Whenever I'm on a show, they're on the other end debating me."

David DeCecco, director of PR at Pepsi Cola, said the company is trying to make it clear to its consumers and retail customers that Aquafina is not the same as tap water. "We start with water from public sources," DeCecco said, via e-mail. "We then purify the water."

DeCecco noted that Pepsi's in-house team was communicating this message to consumers at www.aquafina.com and to the media as requested.

One of the biggest critics of bottled water has been consumer advocacy group Corporate Accountability International. And it's been using its "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign to spread its message that tap water is superior to bottled water.

Gigi Kellett, director of that campaign, said the effort challenges corporate control of water.

"We're raising awareness on the importance of our public water systems here in the US and around the world," Kellett said. "One of the issues we have talked about is that they're spending tens of millions of dollars a year on ads that ultimately undermine confidence in public water systems."

Kevin Keane, SVP of communications at the ABA, said he believes the criticism against bottled water is more of a corporate protest than a concern with safety.

"As soon as the sales of our products start to go up, it's amazing how the criticism goes up," Keane said. "It's your basic good old PR challenge. Your critics are out there trying to use PR to push their anti-corporate agenda, and we are using our own aggressive PR to get the facts out there and aggressively defend our products."

The IBWA is also reaching out to all mayors and state government-related groups "that might be interested in this issue," Doss noted.

And Keane said the ABA's government affairs team is also doing a lot of one-on-one meetings with government officials.

While Doss is in the position of defending bottled water, he expressed dismay that conversation has turned into a tap water vs. bottled water debate.

"Drinking water is good," he said. "If it's tap water, it's good; if it's bottled water, it's good."

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