In 2016, the South Texas city of Corpus Christi was mired in water safety crises that may continue into 2017. City officials have had to issue three different alerts, including one in December that rendered the entire city — with more than 324,000 residents — without drinking water for four days. Corpus Christi is not the first community to experience such an incident; what should utility officials do to manage these crises in the short term and prevent further erosion of public trust?
One critical element of managing a water crisis is ensuring effective public communication and education. Messages must be timely, widespread, clear, honest, compassionate and reassuring, and made public through a variety of channels. Here are a few pointers on absolutely critical things to do:
1. Get Your Message Out – Fast
The December incident in Corpus Christi was caused by a “backflow” accident where chemicals used in processing asphalt leaked into an industrial water line. While the contamination proved to be isolated, city officials chose to err on the side of caution and issue a city-wide notice to avoid contact with tap water. Despite the urgency of this alarming warning, most residents only learned about the contamination from the late-night TV news or through word of mouth.
Corpus Christi sent a reverse-911 emergency text alert at 1 AM to the 119,119 residents registered for the service.1 Given that such emergencies are always possible, utilities need to improve the reach of their emergency alert system to get clear and accurate messaging out to residents who are more likely to use smart phones than watch the evening news. This is especially true in communities, like Corpus Christi, that had already experienced other water safety crises that had impacted trust in the utility.
2. Activate Community Leaders
A community is often reassured to hear from those leaders with ultimate responsibility for resolving a crisis. In Corpus Christi, with its city-owned water utility, that was Mayor Dan McQueen, who promptly appeared before media to reassure residents that officials were collaborating with state and federal entities to secure the situation. “We’re going to continue the sampling process, and the city is still in a partnership with TCEQ [the Texas environmental agency] and with the [US]EPA on evaluating our entire water system.”2
Early on, Texas State Representative for District 32, Todd Hunter, reinforced in a TV news interview the message of competency and urgency by commending local and federal authorities on their management of the crisis, “… there has been great cooperation between the City of Corpus Christi, the federal agencies and the state agencies, they’ve done good…”3 Such positive messages from a trusted high level official helped to bolster the city’s legitimacy as an entity that was taking the matter very seriously and working hard to resolve the issue.
3. Work with Media to Clarify the Facts
Ensuring that the facts are clear and correctly communicated to the public is absolutely key, and media outlets — whether print or broadcast or digital or social, including a utility’s own media platforms — are often the first source of credible information that most people can find. In order to lessen the impact of rumors and inaccuracies, work promptly with reporters and provide background information on the incident that can be helpful in alleviating public fears.
For an example of what can happen instead, check out this video of an interview with a protester in Corpus Christi talking about how she found out about the alert.4 She mentions that web search results on the negative impact of asphalt on human health fueled her anxiety and sowed doubts about how and why the incident occurred. Other examples — some funny, some not — of reaction in Corpus Christi can be found under the #cctxwater Twitter hashtag.5
It is fundamental to get experts to explain in lay terms what is going on in a water safety crisis and how it may impact human health and the environment. As people form their opinions by engaging with media and each other, if utilities do not contribute to the discussion with this kind of information, public discontent will continue to corrode trust. Once the emergency has passed, water utilities will be forced not only to repair their damaged water systems but also their tainted reputations.
Hahn Public’s crisis communications practice is guided by the Image Repair Theory typology of Dr. William Benoit of Ohio University; check out this recent article to learn more about IRT in practice. For more insight on how to work with media in emergencies, check out this video guide.
 Torralva, Krista M. December 20, 2016. City residents evaluate how water ban notification was delivered. Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Retrieved from http://www.caller.com/story/news/local/2016/12/19/water-ban-alert/95621724/  Almasy, Steve and Ellis, Ralph. December 19, 2016. Corpus Christi residents can use tap water again. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/18/health  KIII NEWS. Dec 15, 2016. State Representative Todd Hunter responds to Corpus Christi water ban. Retrieved from http://www.kiiitv.com/news/local/state-representative-todd-hunter-responds-to-corpus-christi-water-ban/371447750  Mendoza, Madalyn. December 15, 2016. Corpus Christi residents use memes to find humor in water crisis. The Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.chron.com/news/local/article/Corpus-Christi-residents-find-humor-in-water-10798365.php#photo-12048048  Corpus Christi Caller Times. December 19, 2016. Social media reacts to Corpus Christi water woes. Retrieved from http://www.caller.com/story/news/2016/12/18/social-media-reacts-water-woes/95600290/
Ibid., Mendoza, Madalyn