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Turning The Tide for Thames Water – Resilience Through Crisis Communications

25.04.24 | Written by Georgina Walker

You’d have to be living under a rock to not notice that UK water companies are in the spotlight and receiving critical scrutiny at the moment. It was revealed back in March that 3.6m hours of raw sewage was discharged in UK waterways in 2023 by UK water firms, more than double the figure reported in 2022.  

 Add that to the financial pressures many water companies are facing, despite 16 water companies paying out a combined £78bn in dividends in the three decades since privatisation took place, whilst building up £64bn in borrowings over the same period. They are under considerable pressure – and there looks to be a narrow path ahead, as they seek to move beyond the challenges they’re facing.  

 But how did we get here? And what can water companies do to face up to the crisis affecting the whole sector?  

Well, let’s look at Thames Water – as good a place to start as any.  

Alarm bells first rang last June when there were mumblings of a potential collapse. Hit by higher interest rates on its £18bn debt, fines for water pollution have kicked it whilst it was already down. The route out – they say – is increasing bills by 44% over five years to allow it to invest £1.1bn in environmental projects and bolster its infrastructure – despite Ofwat’s previous rejection of a similar proposal by the firm. 

Previous inquiries into the performance of Thames Water show that inadequate investments in infrastructure and maintenance over the years have led to a deteriorating network, resulting in frequent leaks, pipe bursts, and service disruptions. Additionally, poor communication and customer service further exacerbated the situation.  

Unsurprisingly, neither Thames Water customers nor Ofwat have welcomed the suggested bills as a way out of the problems that the company is facing. And now, as tensions escalate, Thames Water finds itself at the heart of an intensifying storm with no immediate end in sight. 

But amidst this intense public criticism, effective crisis communications should be a powerful weapon in addressing its growing challenges. By prioritising transparency, accountability, and proactive engagement, the company will be better positioned to navigate this period of turbulence – allowing it to address its key issues, realign its objectives, rebuild its relationships with stakeholders, and emerge resilient.  

Now is the time for strong leadership and aligned communications. A three-point plan in this scenario should consider:  

  1. Adapting amid crisis and responding to issues raised 

In times of intense scrutiny, organisations often want to deflect and provide minimal details as they work through the solutions behind closed doors. Whilst tempting, this approach can create more concern and greater scrutiny – whilst allowing misinformation to spread. When an organisation is under the microscope, seek to provide transparent responses, whilst acknowledging the real challenges you’re facing – but be clear on how you restore confidence by working with stakeholders and partners to tackle X, Y, and Z.    

Equally, effective engagement with stakeholders during this period of uncertainty is critical – if you fail to engage with critical and vocal stakeholders early on, they will join the chorus of people shouting them down. 

    2. Scenario planning and re-aligning the response and focus 

In an ideal situation, organisations would conduct scenario planning during periods of prosperity and minimal disruption, enabling dedicated time, resources, and personnel focus. However, history has taught us that it is naïve to think there is ever an ‘ideal’ time for this kind of exercise.  

Scenario planning allows you to test your response and consider reactions to your organisational response. “What if” planning is a tool, and when conducted correctly, allows organisations to refocus priorities following disruption and provide a structured framework for assessing potential future challenges and opportunities.  

    3. Reaffirm relationships with key stakeholders

Proactive engagement is critical when actioning a communications strategy as it allows an organisation to take control of the narrative and shape perceptions to mitigate misinformation.  

We’ve seen many water companies get caught in a spiral of negative media stories whereby narratives around increased bills, under-investment in services, water shortages, pollution, and flooding, and fear of collapse, have all damaged the “trust” between the organisations and their stakeholders.   

The task is for those water companies to now (bravely) rebuild relationships with core stakeholders. In an election year, this is no easy task – but it is critical, or organisations risk becoming a political football for all political candidates across the political spectrum. Engage, be open, demonstrate the work that you’re doing to put things right, and show them the future plans – it is critical.   

    4.. Challenge misinformation in the press 

All editorial content, including opinion pieces, in IPSO member publications, is regulated under the Editors’ Code of Practice. The Code – through clause 1 – is explicitly clear that publications must distinguish between conjecture and fact, and that editors must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information or images. Any inaccuracies must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published.   

If, despite your best attempts, the journalist still reports and publishes information that is incorrect, be prepared (in the right instances) to challenge it – as reporting a story that includes this misinformation does not adhere to the IPSO code.  

 Any disturbance to water supplies or environmental harm can have far-reaching consequences for public health, safety, and the wider economy. Therefore, anchor organisations like water companies should be at the forefront of crisis planning and preparedness, with proactive communication, transparent operations, and swift response mechanisms in place to address any challenges that may arise.  

 It won’t be easy, but by embracing these approaches, water companies can still yet turn the tide on their current reputational woes.  In doing so, it can not only safeguard its future but also reaffirm its commitment to serving as a custodian of the precious resource upon which so many depend.  

Turning The Tide for Thames Water – Resilience Through Crisis Communications