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