What do you do when you have a 50 metre high earth dam holding back millions of litres of water, and your engineers have just confirmed an official ‘dam safety deficiency’, due to potential erosion within the dam structure?
South Canterbury Irrigation company, Opuha Water Ltd (OWL), found itself in this situation at the end of September 2019.
Thankfully, the situation was not as bad as it sounded. The risk of sudden collapse was extremely low. Engineering investigations suggested that while there was enough evidence of possible internal erosion to trigger a dam safety deficiency declaration, there was no actual emergency. There was time for further investigations to determine if there was actual erosion and, if so, how much. Time, too, to develop a mitigation strategy and to implement it without increasing risk to the public in the meantime.
However, the phrases dam safety deficiency and internal erosion are highly emotive to anyone outside the technical world of large dam engineering, and could cause widespread public alarm. Anyone who searches Google for ‘internal erosion + dam’ will find dramatic stories of dam failures – something OWL was only too aware that many concerned locals and journalists might do.
OWL’s communications challenge was how to meet its obligation to advise stakeholders, authorities and the community of the ‘dam safety deficiency’ without raising unnecessary fears of a wall of muddy water crashing downstream through farms, bridges and towns.
Many companies or organisations in this sort of situation will say nothing and hope it all goes away quietly. This is an understandable, but flawed, strategy. When the news eventually gets out – as it inevitably does – the decision to not inform people about theoretical risks makes things worse . . . much worse. Trust in the company and its brand can be destroyed and can be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from. There is a long list of failed companies that learned the hard way that trying to keep bad news under wraps led to their demise, rather than preventing it.
Front footing a potential crisis is almost always the best option. To its credit, OWL never considered saying nothing and hoping that its interim measures – lowering the lake level by about 10 percent, increasing manual inspections and maintaining round-the-clock real-time digital monitoring – might buy enough time to resolve the issue quietly.
Accepting the advice of its public relations consultants, Convergence Communications & Marketing, OWL agreed to a proactive public information campaign based on transparency, accountability, and freely available information.
Key stakeholders, such as the company’s farmer shareholders, local and regional authorities, civil defence, iwi, local environmental organisations, and irrigation and dam owner professional bodies, were involved in planning the communications outreach.
The objectives were simple:
· Demonstrate community responsibility and accountability
· Convey the facts
· Provide assurance and prevent unnecessary alarm
· Create and/or retain trust that the situation is in hand and that there is time for solutions to be developed and successfully implemented.
A media statement was prepared with the collaboration of key stakeholders. The release included comprehensive information and assurances, plus an extensive FAQ. It was released under embargo and a media stand-up held before the embargo expired, allowing journalists to ask their own questions.
An Opuha Water Facebook page was created and went live as the embargo was lifted. It included informative articles, photos and comments demonstrating transparency and accountability. It also provided assurance. Activity on the page was monitored and questions promptly answered. The same information featured on a “dam safety page” on the company’s website.
What did all this achieve? Almost nothing . . . precisely the desired result.
Media coverage was localised and low key. It reflected the key messages and FAQs provided. There were no dramatic comparisons to international dam failure incidents. The company was even congratulated by some media for its approach and the easy availability of information and spokespeople.
Providing up-front and comprehensive information prevented public panic. There were a few comments on social media, mostly saying it was good to get the information so readily; but no negative feedback. Sharing of online material was largely confined to informing friends and neighbours and didn’t result in unnecessary escalation of the issue. Questions asked on Facebook were sensible and expected; and the responses appeared to be well accepted.
Media interest at the time, and in the following weeks, was low-key and focused more on the next steps, rather than any post mortem about who might be to blame for the situation.
OWL, by having both the courage and the natural inclination to accept Convergence’s advice to run a proactive, open campaign, have, indeed, enhanced their reputation, strengthened their brand and grown their credibility in the community.
In spite of the overwhelming evidence that this strategy works, too many companies in similar situations will choose to go down the ‘hide and hope for the best’ route.
They run a grave risk.
By Steve Attwood, Partner, Convergence Communications & Marketing