Lancashire has made the news twice this summer, back in June for refusing fracking and this month as our water is contaminated with the Cryptosporidium bug, requiring many households to boil their drinking water .
The government are not happy with our fracking decision and we’re not happy with the way United Utilities handled the drinking water problem, which has been going on for over 10 days now. It’s the latter which is dealt with in this blog.
On August 6th United Utilities tweeted this.
Most of us had no idea what was happening. If we wanted more information we had to visit their website.
People were rightly concerned about the lack of clear information, this is after all a public health issue. People were worried, there were no answers. Panic buying set in and shops sold out of bottled water.
There was no clear information going out and people who asked were told to use the postcode checker on United Utilities website to see if their supply was safe or not – But it turned out that the postcode checker was faulty too!
The story hit the news but no-one was clear who was safe and who wasn’t. It took until the weekend before people got proper notification through their letter box.
Because United Utilities had chosen to be slow sharing information people were starting to get frustrated and it was the social media staff managing the Facebook and Twitter accounts that were on the receiving end.
Ten days later most of us understand what we have to do, but we don’t know how much longer it will carry on and we still don’t know why it happened. This is one theory:
There was early fracking exploration in this area, so it could well be true, but it has not been commented on. United Utilities claim it may be the result of a dead animal. I guess we will never know.
Had United Utilities circulated better information earlier it could have all gone a lot smoother. People were concerned about elderly and vulnerable relatives and feelings were running high. Many only heard the news headlines and didn’t know who was affected. My area wasn’t affected but I found out that people were still boiling their drinking water to be on the safe side, which means they ran up their electricity bill unnecessarily.
A 2014 Ofcom report noted that Facebook remains the default social networking site for almost all UK adults who are online and 24 million people in the UK check into Facebook daily, so I suggested that United Utilities put some money on a targeted Facebook advert to explain exactly what was happening.
But they made a decision not to as they believe they have enough reach on their page!
That smacked of arrogance and limited thinking and I lost my sympathy with them. They could have got the word out well on the most popular social media platform for a small amount of money, but they didn’t think it was necessary. (The patronising response didn’t endear them to me either to be honest!)
I follow United Utilities and nothing ever came up on my newsfeed. The water supply was contaminated and they expected us to go and search for the information. That is simply not an acceptable way of dealing with a public health issue.
So 11 days on, many parts of Lancashire are still without clean drinking water and we have no idea how much longer that will continue. I do feel sorry for the social media team, they had limited information to share and they got a lot of flack. If CEO Steve Mogford is on twitter he’s certainly kept quiet about it. United Utilities, like so many corporates, have underestimated the necessity for transparency and accountability in this digital age.
We’re a stoic lot oop north so we have just got on with it, but the way this situation has been handled will not be forgotten in a hurry. Being Lancashire folk we still have our humour of course…
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed who the winners are in this mess…
Social media provides a great set of tools for getting good information out there alongside traditional media. But making it work requires a well thought out plan with good, clear information and transparency. The social media managers need to be able to answer people’s questions thoughtfully and sensitively. In this case Public Health England had to step in and explain what to do.
Things go wrong, that’s part of life, but there are lessons to be learnt here for many organisations. Let’s just hope they do and we don’t get a repeat of this shambles.
As for United Utilities, they are now being required to pay considerable compensation to those affected .
Do you have experiences of social media being used well to communicate important information to the public? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a message below.
Jane Binnion is an ethical business trainer working with organisations who want to embrace this age of transparency and accountability. If you would like to work with Jane drop her an email at Jane@janebinion.com or find her on twitter @janebinnion