Reputation check: Leaks scupper Thames Water image

The supplier has failed to escape culpability for the region’s hosepipe ban. David Quainton reports

Utility companies are a bit like football referees – they tend to be performing well if you don't notice them. So the fact that newspapers, gardeners and Joe Public are all talking about Thames Water might be making the firm feel a little uncomfortable.

Last month it announced the introduction of the region's first hosepipe ban for 15 years. The ban, which began earlier this week, follows an unprecedented 16-month drought.

However, while lack of rainwater is a problem consumers accept, and water firms and local authorities have been instructing on ways to combat drought, Thames Water has come under fire for lack of efficiency.

According to regulator Ofwat, the water supplier's daily leakage rate has hit 241 million gallons.

Newspapers, in particular the Daily Mail, leapt on the hosepipe ban with gusto. The situation was not helped by one of Thames Water's JCBs spearing a pipe outside the Mail's Kensington offices.

London focus
'We have had much more coverage of our ban than other companies that have had restrictions in place since last year, probably because we are the UK's largest water supplier and many reporters are based in London,' says Thames Water media relations manager Andrew Boyd.

The firm is sounding out agencies (PRWeek, 31 March), but is unlikely to slip off the radar, with German parent RWE looking to sell or demerge it.

What is more, consumers are dissatisfied with Thames Water. In PRWeek's survey, 45 per cent of respondents blamed 'unnecessary leaks and outdated infrastructure' rather than drought for the hosepipe ban, leaving the firm with a clear comms challenge.

Analysis 1: the water industry view
Richard Emmott, former comms director at Yorkshire Water and now affiliate partner, Media Strategy: 'For a long period Thames Water had an excellent reputation. But it's difficult to deliver a compelling water conservation message when you have the UK's highest leakage level. To date most media coverage has been relatively balanced and the company has been reasonably successful in getting its messages across.

'However, BBC London is running a regular item on London's worst leak, and as the situation worsens, customers will be queuing up to report unrepaired leaks. Papers with space to fill in the silly season view drought as a gift.

'Thames Water must synchronise their operational plan and customer comms. Leak response and mains renewal need to be highly efficient and high profile, and customers need to see visible evidence of the company doing its bit. And it should keep a careful eye on the Lib Dems, and possibly the new, greener Tories.

'With the media, it needs to avoid a siege mentality – which would only cause further damage – and wherever possible engage them in a public information role.'

Analysis 2: the utility company view
Alan McLaughlin, senior media relations manager, British Gas: 'Heat, light and water are all necessities of life. Attempts to ration or make them more expensive cause outrage, and we have similarly been at the sharp end of media attention amid energy price rises.

'On the whole, Thames Water is getting recognition for its investment and conservation messages. But a 30ft geyser appearing outside the Daily Mail offices days before a hosepipe ban was a cruel blow. And there will be plenty of brickbats to come.

'A hot summer would be bad, a wet one even worse as a damp public wonders why the ban is still in force. To reduce leakage Thames Water has to replace a Victorian infrastructure  and it must educate consumers about water efficiency. The energy industry is seeing a change in consumers' engagement with environment messages and Thames Water has started to position itself in this space pretty well. It must show that investment is happening and hammer home the conservation message with case studies, while trying to demonstrate the benefits of water meters. There are hard weeks ahead, but I suspect it has a robust PR plan in place.'

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