A Failure to Communicate: A textbook example of why you must put yourself in your customers' shoes

For the last two months, WaterPIO has been deeply involved in the Lower Cape Fear Region's response to the discovery of GenX, an emerging contaminant derived from a known carcinogen that cannot be removed from the area's finished drinking water.  As the former Chief Communications Officer for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) from 2012 until this past April, I was called upon early and often to explain what the discovery meant to the nearly 300,000 people who drink the water every day.  


When the Wilmington, NC Star-News broke the story on June 7th, its readers were stunned to hear the news.  While the screaming headline, "Toxin taints CFPUA drinking water," clearly shocked the public, the paper's coverage was even-handed and designed to inform, not scare, the public.  Unfortunately, when those same readers turned to their water utility, CFPUA, for details about GenX or several other aspects of the story, they hit a brick wall.


They hit this brick wall despite the fact that CFPUA staff had worked with scientists to help discover the toxin more than a year earlier; two utility employees were even credited as co-authors.  Once the GenX was discovered, the utility's water quality team did its job and did it well, following the regulatory process.  They even accommodated the media on the story well in advance of it hitting newsstands.  


Unfortunately, a conscious decision was made by the utility's Executive Director not to prepare the public for the news of the toxin's existence in the drinking water.  He felt that, because CFPUA didn't put the toxin in the water, CFPUA wouldn't be blamed and didn't really need to explain its presence.  Despite nearly four weeks of advance notice, the utility didn't produce any print or online communications materials in preparation for the story.    


The Executive Director didn't put itself in his customers' shoes and consider how they would probably react - with fear and anger - to the news of a toxin being found in their drinking water.  This approach applied to all facets of the organization.  The utility's Board of Directors wasn't informed until 36 hours before the story hit the Internet.  Customer Service staff charged with answering the phones weren't even told that GenX had been discovered, let alone that the story was coming out. 


Because of the decision not to communicate about the discovery of GenX, instead of gaining support from the public as a blameless utility whose water was tainted by an evil chemical company, CFPUA was met with an enormous wave of customer anger because it did not properly communicate what the findings meant, both before the story broke and after it landed on customers' doorsteps and screens.  


Because the lack of preparation, upset customers were left without answers, leaving them to believe CFPUA had a hand in hiding information about the toxin.  As a result, CFPUA became Villain 1A, behind Chemours, during the first few days of news coverage.  


CFPUA had to play catch up in a crisis, never a good position to be in, but one you can recover from with the proper response.  Instead, it froze and doubled down on its initial poor decision by going dark.  The Executive Director didn't return calls from the press.  Left without answers, the media questioned why they weren't being responded to, creating the feeling with their audiences that CFPUA was hiding something.  With airtime to fill, they turned to others to fill in the information gaps beyond CFPUA's control.  We at WaterPIO handled several interviews to fill in the information gap and we defended CFPUA's staff, but other interviews were held with members of the community who claimed the water had killed their family members and that was why CFPUA had gone silent.


When top management finally emerged days later, the Executive Director and CFPUA's board chair gave contentious interviews when pressed for answers to key questions.  They actually made it look like they had a hand in helping the chemical company when, again, CFPUA's water quality staff had actually acted appropriately throughout the matter.  Instead of being congratulated by the public for their work, they look guilty of perhaps something sinister.


Fear and anger are many times uncontrollable; they will be projected onto anything that can be blamed for a situation, especially in social media.  It can flow on social media like a raging river, sweeping away everything in its path.  When information gaps are created due to a lack of response, others will respond and many without any expertise or a desire to honestly give all sides of a story.  


A Stop GenX Facebook page was started within hours; today, it has swelled to more than 10,000 users.  During the first few days of the crisis, I initially worked with the administrator of the site ensure the information relayed was accurate. Unfortunately, CFPUA-related anger on the page led the admin to remove me from the page completely because "I had worked for CFPUA and, therefore, I could not be trusted."


As a result of deciding not to communicate with their customers on something as essential as the quality of their water, CFPUA's reputation has been damaged so much, the StarNews even wrote in their June 28 editorial:  "We fear CFPUA's failure to inform the community of GenX earlier has done permanent damage to the trust its customers need." 


As GenX levels subside and the public's attention turns elsewhere, two overall impressions remain.  The first, that a chemical company put toxins in their water and got away with it for thirty-plus years, and second, that the public utility responsible for their drinking water chose not to tell them there was GenX in it, even after knowing for weeks the press was going to report the story.    


It didn't have to be this way.  The fear and anger from CFPUA's customers could have been addressed before it even had a chance to take hold, let alone immediately after it began to surface.  A basic acknowledgment of what their customers wanted to know - and felt they should be told - would have largely prevented the public backlash.  A variety of print and online materials, and the use of a media briefing, could have provided a clearinghouse of information to cut down on customer confusion and social media rumors.


Instead the certain angry reaction was ignored and thousands of customers were left to twist in the wind when they came looking for information.  Instead of being viewed as a victimized public servant, the utility is now seen as an unreliable member of the community.  Its reputation is likely to remain tainted longer than the water.