While Auckland’s beaches and harbours may look pristine, this isn’t always the case as contaminants can make their way into the water. So, Auckland Council launched a clever initiative to keep swimmers safe and informed.
Auckland is home to three beautiful harbours and many beaches, enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. It's Auckland Council’s job to ensure they are able to enjoy the natural assets of their city while staying safe. Most of the time, Auckland’s beaches and harbours are clean, but when it rains, stormwater can get into the wastewater network, which causes sewage systems to overflow. This, combined with other sources of contaminates, can often make the beach unsafe for swimming. Contaminated water can be laden with bacteria such as e-coli and cryptosporidium that can cause gastroenteritis, respiratory illnesses and ear, eye and skin infections. It was important for the council to get across to the public the health risk of swimming at contaminated beaches, despite the fact the information may not have been popular with Auckland residents who enjoy the beach. The council’s biggest challenge was to educate Aucklanders about the water quality in an appealing way, allowing them to make informed decisions about their lives. It also wanted to position Auckland Council as a leader in the area of beach water monitoring and show transparency by acknowledging the region had a water quality issue and that it was determined to do something about it.
In November 2017, the council launched Safeswim, a new and improved water quality reporting programme. It allowed the public to obtain real-time water forecasts for 84 beaches and eight freshwater sites around Auckland from the programme's dedicated website. Although the programme had been around for a number of years, in 2017 it was revamped from a once-a week monitoring programme to a real-time forecasting model. Real-time weather, tide and waste water system data was fed into the model in order to predict current and future water quality. The Safeswim risk categories reflected the amount of bacteria in the water. Green indicated it was safe to swim, while red indicated it was unsafe. There was also a middle-ground where safety levels were not always clear, where an increase in the levels of bacteria were low enough for a healthy person to swim without significant risk of illness. The campaign was kicked off with a funny video explaining Safeswim and the importance of checking water quality before swimming. It also consisted of media briefings, multi-media content, radio and digital display advertising and social media marketing to reach a broad range of communities. Paid media was bolstered during the Christmas holiday period and long weekends to ensure reach at a time when the public was most likely to be at the beach and swimming. The campaign collateral used an easy-to-understand graphic device (similar to forest fire danger levels signs) to indicate what the alert levels meant. Risks were categorised as ‘Low Risk’, ‘Fair’ and ‘Alert’. This provided an easy to understand device and answer to ‘Do I swim or not?’.
The campaign did what the council hoped, effectively raising awareness about water quality at Auckland beaches. Within three months of the campaign launch, the Safeswim website had reached 141,000 unique users and 280,000 hits, exceeding its target of 100,000 hits. There was high awareness of the programme and by the end of the 2017/2018 swimming season, around half of all beach goers in Auckland knew about Safeswim. The social campaign also did well, resulting in 1.6 million impressions with almost 15,000 clicks. Further, there was also media interest in Safeswim, with it being reported on every week across local, national and international print media. Between November 2017 to February 2018, 106 articles featured water quality and 75 percent of those articles mentioned Safeswim. A story on Safeswim even became the third most-read article on The Guardian online for its ‘poo-tracker’ story.