CAMPAIGNS: Flushing out the water parasite - Crisis Management

Three Valleys Water supplies water to 2.3 million customers living in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, North London plus parts of Essex and Buckinghamshire.

Three Valleys Water supplies water to 2.3 million customers living

in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, North London plus parts of Essex and

Buckinghamshire.



Cryptosporidium is a parasite carried by farm and domestic animals

Following 32 reported cases of diarrhoea caused by cryptosporidium,

Three Valleys Water found a low level of the organism in a sample of

treated water on 2 March 1997.



Objectives



To put a crisis management plan into action, inform people in the

affected areas as quickly as possible, respond to media requests and

keep the media informed about new developments.



Tactics



Three Valleys Water has a crisis management plan which swung into action

immediately following discovery of the contamination. The CM team,

chaired by managing director Jim McGown, includes PR manager Frank

Fitzpatrick and operational and customer services representatives.



An emergency meeting was called with local authority environmental

health officials at the company’s offices on Sunday 2nd March to look at

the evidence and decide what action to take.



A notice advising customers to boil drinking water was hand-delivered to

300,000 homes on Sunday and Monday by company staff and the Royal

Mail.



A media response team was set up headed by Fitzpatrick. This included

three others from the in-house PR unit, two from PR agency AIMM, plus

ten Three Valleys Water staff who had been trained to act as a first

line handling calls from journalists. A press release was put out at

7.30pm on 2 March.



Fitzpatrick was nominated as the company spokesman. In the first 24

hours there were more than 20 broadcast interviews and the media

response team handled 150 requests from journalists. The company’s

customer call centre was staffed overnight for the first few days and

included extra staff trained for crisis situations. More than 38,000

calls were handled in-house plus 19,000 by an overflow agency, 24,000

called a recorded message, and there were a further 20,000 operational

calls.



The crisis deepened when, following eight reported cases of the

infection in the Luton area, another 25,000 homes were advised on 6

March to boil water. Three Valleys Water worked round the clock to

eradicate the organism and reportedly spent pounds 40,000 a day on

increased sampling. It also supplied local schools and hospitals with

bottled water.



Finally on 18 March Three Valleys Water announced that the parasite had

been eradicated and lifted the water notice. It announced it would be

paying pounds 10 compensation to each affected customer.



Results



’The media was obviously keen to get as much information as possible and

while they appreciated that we reacted quickly and made ourselves

accessible, the length of the crisis meant they had to discover new

angles and it was very difficult to find new information to pass on,’

says Fitzpatrick.



Inevitably the media reported problems and criticisms - for example that

the customer call centre broke down under the sheer volume of the calls,

and that there were complaints about the level of compensation.



’I think in some cases the reporting was not as fair as we would have

hoped, but overall coverage was much as we would have expected,’ says

Fitzpatrick. Getting across messages that water was safe to drink if

boiled and the company was working flat out to identify the source of

the problem was difficult, acknowledges Fitzpatrick.



Radio was found to be the most useful medium for getting through to

people quickly.



Verdict



This was a crisis on a massive scale, and Three Valleys Water benefited

from having a crisis management plan in place. The company acted quickly

to inform customers and allocated resources to handle inevitable

interest from the public and media.



The source of the infection has still not been found, and one of the

problems the company faced is that although not necessarily responsible

for the infection and despite the fact it acted responsibly by taking

ownership of the problem and seeking to solve it, it is still being

blamed by many.



The crisis has already cost Three Valleys Water pounds 5 million and

inevitably damaged its reputation in the eyes of some. It now faces a

period of re-building.



Client: Three Valleys Water

PR Team: In-house and AIMM

Campaign: Cryptosporidium crisis

Timescale: March 1997

Estimated cost: In excess of pounds 100,000



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