Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) is the British holding company for several companies in the water supply, sewerage and wastewater industries. Serving a large customer base, the firm has a responsibility to educate the population on adequate water usage, but also promote an internal comms strategy for its many workers. We spoke to Jonathan Bargh, External Communications Manager at Northumbrian Water Group, to discover the company’s approach in this respect.
Question: How do you think communication in the water sector has evolved in recent years?
Answer: I’ve been in the water industry for four years and I think some of biggest changes I’ve seen have been in the sector’s approach to social media.
Some companies have really kicked on and evolved how they use their channels, and some have established themselves as really interesting and engaging accounts, even for people not specifically interested in the industry, which is no mean feat!
I think there are some brilliant examples of great customer service taking place via water company social media channels with direct messaging support and operational updates during incidents.
And what I also really love is that social media has given a platform for people who work in the industry to share more about what they do. Real people, who do real jobs in the water industry can get across their expertise and passion directly to customers, stakeholders and the wider public. They’re able to share stories, experiences, opinions firsthand through social media channels and that’s brilliant. There’s more of this than ever and it’s making a difference.
Q: Why do you think it is important to communicate about water?
A: Because it’s amazing. It’s a huge part of all of our lives, we use it every day in all kinds of ways and, most importantly, unless we protect it then it will run out!
We have to keep reminding people about this because it’s really easy, especially in the UK, to take clean water for granted. For most of us, we turn on the tap and it comes out. That’s pretty much all we have to worry or think about.
But water is a finite resource and it is running out. It’s our job to keep reminding people just how precious it is and how important it is to preserve every drop. That way we can ensure that generations to come will always have access to clean water.
Q: What are the most challenging aspects of communicating about the work of the water industry?
A: It’s a quite technical and complicated industry, and rightly so because some of the amazing work that our teams have to do is pretty technical and complicated. Ever tried designing and building a reservoir from scratch?
So trying to get that across in a way everyone can understand can be challenging at times, but we’re getting much better at doing this.
It’s also really tough to get noticed. We’re competing with everyone else for attention and it’s a real challenge to ensure that we get some of it. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the water industry just isn’t that sexy and we have to be super creative and clever with our communications to make them stand out. It’s difficult but it’s a brilliant challenge and forces you as a communicator to get better!
Q: Could you highlight one of your company’s communication success stories?
A: Our ‘Bin the Wipe’ campaign has been amazing and led to real change which we’re delighted with.
Like all water companies, we have issues with wet wipes causing havoc with our networks and sewer systems. We’d done lots of campaigns and initiatives on the issue previously to try and help but never really been able to get a significant change in customers’ behavior.
In 2020, we launched ‘Bin the Wipe’. The campaign aimed to make a real impact and reduce the number of wet wipes being flushed down toilets once and for all.
From a communications perspective, our objectives were mainly around awareness and education. Getting people to see and take notice of our messages, understand the issue and hopefully change their behavior.
But we knew we had to do it differently if we wanted it to work this time and get noticed. We had to be brave.
So we replaced the soft, safe, social media content that would have been used for previous campaigns with real pictures of bathrooms and toilets that had been flooded because of wipes.
This activity resulted in a 61% decrease in the number of blockages caused by wipes in the hot spot areas
We described the scenes in graphic detail, changed our language and tone of voice to try and capture attention and we geo-targeted ‘hot-spot’ areas on Facebook to ensure that the right messages got to the right people.
All of this ran alongside a fab marketing campaign that involved giving out free bathroom bins to customers in these areas and targeted advertising.
This activity resulted in a 61% decrease in the number of blockages caused by wipes in the hot spot areas. A really huge shift and win for us.
And from a comms perspective, we recorded some of the best results we’d ever seen from any of our campaigns, with a social media reach of almost 2m with Bin the Wipe content and 80 pieces of media coverage ranging from local newspapers to international broadcast coverage.
Managing to achieve the behavior change and the communications results despite the challenges we all faced during 2020 was something that I’m really proud of the team for doing.
Q: Who or what organization inspires you when it comes to ways of communicating?
A: Probably focusing more on social media than traditional media, I do love organisations and accounts that can manage to make the ordinary and everyday topics and stories stand out. It’s something that we try and do here at NW every day.
It’s such a skill and so difficult to achieve, but when it’s done well then it’s amazing. A couple of accounts that do this really well and that I closely follow are:
The North East Ohio Regional sewer district Twitter account is quality. They make wastewater funny and interesting through their tone of voice and approach. It gets a bit weird at times but I like that.
I’m also a huge fan of Doncaster Council on social media and the clever and creative ways their team manage to make messaging about things like bin collections come to life.