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CommsCon19: Taming the beast! How the Whitechapel fatberg became a global celebrity

5 days ago

Our PR team journeyed down to London for CommsCon, Cision’s annual conference for public relations professionals, this month to hear from the minds behind Britain’s biggest headlines. 

Right before lunch, we had the pleasure of hearing from Stuart White, head of media relations at Thames Water who shared the story of a monster under the streets of London…. The Whitechapel fatberg

In 2017, Stuart lived and breathed the man-made monstrosity, helping to bring the beast to millions across the world to encourage more people to be a little more considerate about what they flush down the toilet in the grossest, most brilliant way.

The birth of a celebrity

Stuart kicked off his talk by asking the audience what we thought could be found in a fatberg, to get us all thinking – wet wipes, cooking fat, nappies… all the things people shouldn’t flush, but do.

Then, the beast was brought to life. Stuart showed the audience the original CCTV footage of the 130 tonne lump of fat and unflushables that was discovered in an East End Victorian sewer that was right underneath the streets of Whitechapel. Incredibly, this congealed lump ran the length of TWO Wembley football pitches.

An added bonus was a little rat scurrying over the fatberg – a phrase which Thames Water team coined after they discovered the monster.

It was interesting from a PR perspective to hear just what it was that launched this particular fatberg into the international media landscape, considering it was essentially the embodiment of all that was disgusting. 

While it wasn’t the first fatberg to be discovered – a 15 tonne mass was found in 2013 and another in 2014 which was the size of a Boeing 747 – the combination of its size and its location in Jack the Ripper territory meant that the Whitechapel fatberg was shrouded in mystery and intrigue. As Stuart put it, it was the perfect combination to create a media frenzy.

Feeding the beast

Stuart took a simple approach to Thames Water’s PR strategy on what quickly became the subject that everyone was talking about, at home, in offices and down the pub. 

Once the discovery had been unearthed, he gave a story directly to a contact at Evening Standard and by Tuesday, it was online and in the evening, in print. Film crews turned up that day and every day for the rest of the week. The news reached 150 countries and journalists flocked to the tiny street to try to get a good look at the colossal mass. A monsterous celebrity was born. 

“I didn’t realise how big it would become.” 

Feeding the beast were the gross out images, that all important CCTV footage with the rat cameo, as well as great spokespeople from Thames Water. The team also took the bold decision to use daring language that they wouldn’t typically use for the brand and, over time, they pushed this language further and further as people lapped it up.

The Whitechapel fatberg was truly alive by this point, shocking, disgusting and capturing imaginations. But most importantly, it gave Thames Water a platform to help them raise awareness of sewer misuse and highlight the work they do. Before, what happened to your waste was out of sight, out of mind. The fatberg put it on every TV channel.

A key part of their strategy was to help news crews and presenters to get up close to the fatberg and see, touch and, importantly, smell the festering mass. They opened up the sewer for journalists – including Radio 1’s Greg James – to experience it for themselves and portray it in all its glory.

There was a real buzz, with millions of social media mentions pouring in and there was constant media coverage.

Because the team did need to get the fatberg fixed, media visits were soon relocated to another part of the sewer so the crews could crack on without distraction – literally chiselling away at the solidified lump with shovels and picks.

It was one of the most disgusting things imaginable and many people probably felt quietly guilty about contributing to the problem.”

Moving the story – and the fatberg – on

Going beyond the fatberg and back to the reason why this was all so important for Thames Water’s aims, Stuart explained that the key message here was that people needed to bin – not flush – non flushable items and products. The fatberg helped get people’s attention in a whole new way.

While at first, the company pushed its more media-trained and most senior figures to be interviewed, they quickly switched to arranging interviews with the people on the frontline, who could give much more frank, personal accounts of what their work is like. This was a masterstroke, helping people to empathise with the team members, share in their jokes and appreciate the incredible hard work that goes into keeping London’s sewers flowing.

One worker, Natalie became a familiar voice on Greg James’ Radio 1 show, being nicknamed ‘Natberg’ and making regular appearances to keep the audience updated on their progress as they chiselled away at the fatberg.

People on the ground “added new dimensions to the story” and shone in their interviews. Stuart’s team recognised that they resonated with customers, and they went on to make the team the face of their marketing campaign.

Interestingly, Stuart also observed that these workers were less likely to be faced with tougher questions such as challenges on executive pay – than their more senior colleagues, which all helped to keep the story on focus.

As the story kept moving, Stuart’s team continued to push out milestones in the fatberg’s demise. It was being converted to biodiesel after Thames Water teams slowly and laboriously chipped away at the concrete-like monster. Thames Water began to work with local restaurants to show them the best ways of operating to stop feeding the fatberg. A section of the fatberg was even put on display in the Museum of London. Like wipes down a toilet, the news bites kept on coming.

Credit: BBC London via Youtube

Winning the battle, but not the war

The coverage generated from the Whitechapel fatberg was staggering and the results show the incredible power of earned media. Amazingly, it was all achieved without any spend.

“Versions of the story kept appearing in the Evening Standard and it became the most read story on the BBC News website.

It was covered by all the nationals and as the top worldwide entertainment story on Twitter. Channel 4’s Cathy Newman hosted a Youtube feature on Whitechapel’s modern day monster, and Greg James once said that it was one of the first things people would ask him about when they met him. The fatberg was on BBC News at 10, on BBC Radio 5, on Mock the Week and a Channel 4 documentary watched by 1.1 million live viewers. The story was everywhere, and Stuart flagged that even now, two years on, stories still crop up – particularly when new fatbergs appear in London.

Stuart also took the time to reflect on the awful job at hand for so many Thames Water employees who had to face the fatberg, wading through sewage to drain the horrifying contents of the Victorian systems and chip away bit by bit at walls of oil, fat, grease, wet wipes and who knows what else.  

“So, why does Thames Water want to promote its fatbergs?” 

As with every PR and comms campaign, there’s a purpose behind the interviews, bylines and social media buzz. For Stuart and the team, it was all about their ongoing ‘Bin it, don’t block it’ campaign which aimed to raise awareness of the problem of flushing products such as wet wipes and other unflushables. 

Sewer abuse on the level that Thames Water experiences can cause issues for hundreds and thousands of its 13 million customers across London and beyond – costing £18 million per year – as abuse stops the flow of sewage and ultimately, it goes back to where it came from.

Now, blockages are down 5 percent from last year which is a win for the team. While the battle in Whitechapel was won (commemorated by a specially made manhole cover and plaque), the battle continues across the world. Importantly for Stuart and the team, this incredible story contributed to the campaign in ways that ideas generated in a meeting never could. It was a fat-filled phenomenon. 

Looking back on the campaign, Stuart had no idea it would become the global superstar it ultimately became and this led to one of only a few missteps. When they launched the story, they had no images or high quality footage – all they managed to do was to share the grainy CCTV footage which they managed to cobble together on the day the story broke. If they had great images to begin with, they could have got the story off to an even stronger start.

The legacy of the Whitechapel fatberg

While the monster eventually met its end, the impact it’s made in London and around the world is large and long lasting.

  • It brought gave people an appreciation of the work carried out by Thames Water and its teams
  • It raised awareness of sewer abuse and irresponsible behaviour
  • The word ‘fatberg’ was introduced into the dictionary – and it can win you 13 points in Scrabble
  • Thames Water was the inspiration behind New York City’s ‘Trash it, don’t flush it’ campaign
  • Sewer abuse and unflushables have become part of the conversation on the environment and waste
  • Toiletries companies are working with Thames Water to improve labelling on wet wipe packaging.

While Stuart was clear that the campaign will never end, particularly as there has been a shift towards the impact of plastic-filled wet wipes and unflushables on the environment, Thames Water’s approach to the Whitechapel fatberg – from a sewer blockage to a living, breathing monster lurking below the surface – has opened eyes and nostrils to the true impact of our way of life. 

Takeaways:

  • Being bold can often work in your favour, but it’s important to know your audience and your brand to ensure that you’re keeping all stakeholders happy – don’t get caught up in the excitement! As Stuart said, people across London were experiencing day-to-day water issues that needed to be dealt with while all this was going on
  • Creating an experience captivates audiences – even if that experience happens to be smelling 130 tonnes worth of nappies and fat
  • The people at the centre of a news story can capture the media’s imagination and carry a story well beyond its limitations. From recurring appearances on Radio 1 to Channel 4 documentaries, the heroes of the story were the champions of the Whitechapel fatberg and kept the story moving
  • Sometimes, PR and comms can be unpredictable – you never know when an event or story could catapult your business or client onto the national or international stage, especially in the age of social media and viral content! So be prepared.