Wet Wipe PR Wipe Out
May 9, 2018 by Jonathan Gabay.
In an effort to shrink giant ‘Fatbergs’ of gunk clogging up the UK’s sewers (some weighing in as much as ten double-decker buses) the UK government is to ban single-use products like wet wipes, which Water UK say are responsible for 93% of sewer blockages.
Wet-wipe manufacturers produce a wide range of products, including wipes for sensitive skin to those for make-up removal, applying insect repellent, sunscreen…and even specialist wipes for adult incontinence. However, almost all are made of polyester and other non-biodegradable materials.
Considering wet wipes as a prerequisite for anyone with kids, the announcement to wipe out the wipes has washed the smiles off parents’ faces.
“Never thought I could be this angry over banning wet wipes in the UK,” one wrote on Twitter.
“Mate, have you tried wiping a baby’s bum with a tissue?”
“As a parent, I can tell you that is a god-awful idea,” wrote a Facebooker.
Some pointed out the blanket wet wipe ban was blatantly unfair, arguing that not all parents flush wipes down the toilet.
“Can’t believe people are stupid enough to flush them down the toilet,” wrote one rattled mum.
Others pointed out that wet wipes can be especially useful for those with disabilities.
“If they are not flushed, and made of biodegradable ingredients, isn’t that different? Abled people rarely think of these considerations I notice,” said a person with a disability.
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with wet wipe manufacturers and retailers to ensure labels detail how best to dispose of the products.
The government said it would consult over whether to extend the ban to cotton buds, plastic straws, and drink stirrers. (Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042).
Plan for the worst
From an environmental point of view, the initiative appears laudable, yet from a PR perspective, it fails to fully take into account the practical sensibilities of actual consumers (an oversight which has a led to a public backlash in the press and over social media against the idea).
KBAPR always advises clients to fully take into account potential objections to announcements – irrespective of how well intended such initiatives may appear on paper.
The main consideration is how an announcement could affect the most important people involved with a story: consumers, closely followed by stakeholders including employees, shareholders and so on.
In the wet wipes story, if such considerations would have been taken into account, rather than the press concentrating purely on the reactions of irate parents, the entire focus could have shifted to how the government was going to work with (as opposed to against) parents, to persuade them of the benefits of correct disposal of wet wipes – not just for the environment today, but for the sake of the future ecosystem for their children.
One PR-savvy wet wipe manufacturer, Guardpack ‘jumped’ the storytelling the press it complained to MPs about the decision to ban all wipes.
Speaking to the BBC, Guardpack’s managing director, gave his alternative view and at the same time plugging his brand: “If you go to Nando’s, you’ll see our products. The wipes are biodegradable and take 3ml of liquid on average. If people couldn’t use them, diners would need to wash their hands, using on average one litre of water. Also, wipes are widely used in the medical industry where they can prove crucial for patients’ lifestyles.”
Fully exploiting the PR advantage, the brand said many of its wipes were made of 100% biodegradable materials.
What’s in a fatberg?
Wet wipes account for a massive 93% of the material blocking UK’s sewers.
Fat, oil and grease only make up 0.5%.
The other 7% is made up of materials including feminine hygiene products, cotton pads and plastic wrappers.
Toilet paper contributes to just 0.01% of the material blocking pipes and sewers.
Environmental charities including Greenpeace and the Marine Conservation Society were not surprised by the stats since wet wipes are often marketed as “flushable” (yet another PR mistake just waiting to be smeared in the press and social media).
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