A water main exploded at midnight on Wednesday 19th July and killed the supply to 35,000 homes across Bristol, causing a right old headache for Bristol Water.

I know nothing about fixing water mains, but it seems to me they had their work cut out: isolate the fault, patch it, prevent further ruptures, work safety in dangerous conditions and generally act cautiously when speed is of the essence.

Aside from the actual fault, they had to provide updates to the public, mobilise water stations at key locations that must be both chosen swiftly and strategically to avoid queueing and, above all, prioritise vulnerable residents who could be housebound, fragile or reliant on regular medication.

Despite all this, they got water resupplied to every single home by 1am the following day. Many homes were reconnected far earlier. Water, it turns out, is not beamed magically to your tap. There are real people that fill your sink. They worked through the night to serve the community.

Part of being a member of a community is providing honest, open feedback to help make improvements to the services we receive. So, Bristol Water, this is my honest feedback to help you improve communication for the next time this happens. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful. This will make it better.

#1 — No news is never, ever better than news

You need an internal service-level agreement on how often updates are posted. This should be driven by a few community focus groups to work out the ideal update schedule to balance the workload of your comms consultants and the public’s need for updates.

I’m shooting from the hip here, but I think that after about 20 minutes people will start getting antsy, wondering if you’ve forgotten them. Regular updates help fill the void of uncertainty as people worry and catastrophise but also they can be used to educate people on the severity of the problem and the complexity of the repair.

Here’s an example of how it could work:

08:34 — No updates, we are still working as fast as we can. Current key tasks include isolating the fault and re-rerouting pressure to avoid a dangerous infrastructural collapse. We have a team of 5 on site at the moment.

08:50 — Senior engineer B. B. Bore says we expect the recharging process to take 2 hours and we will be starting soon. Recharging does not fix the problem but is one step in a series that will bring the water supply back online.

09:10 — No updates yet but our senior engineer team have brought new materials on site for the repair. We are available on 0800 23232.

09:20 — No further updates. Note our water bowser locations here.

09:30 — If you’re vulnerable and need help, call us immediately on 0800 23232. Work is still ongoing.

Also, gaps in your coverage are a problem. Employers often make people explain gaps in their CV. Why? Because they assume the worst when there is probably a reasonable explanation. Gaps never look good.

You said problems were first reported at midnight, but on your update page it says crews were on the scene at 6:23am. What was going on between these times? How do you even find a fault? Curious people would like to know about this and the naysayers want to know you weren’t just twiddling your thumbs.

#2 — If your initial acknowledgement is poor, you’ll struggle to win people round

People are trying to extract information from you — it feels too ‘pull.’ It needs to be more ‘push.’

This is achieved by penetration to as many different parts of the community as possible in as many different ways. Online channels are great, but not everyone has them or checks them.

Acknowledgement of ‘increased chatter’ among residents is a plausible scenario too for your first response — you do not need to acknowledge a fault. It is simply a note to assure people they aren’t going mad — that there is something amiss, that it’s not just them with a problem.

Here are some options to make it feel more ‘push.’

  • SMS services that people can opt-in to would allow you to push text messages to all those who are signed up. This would also allow you to screen for vulnerability.
  • Announcements over the tannoys in supermarkets
  • Posters in bus stops or in shop windows
  • Working with ‘community connectors’ who are the most networked and well-known in the local area and who will spread the word quickest and farthest
  • These community connectors could don yellow jackets and walk round their area knocking on doors.

#3 — Water bowsers are great, but the response needs some shoring up

Please don’t assume people know what a bowser is. You could say: “We are delivering three water bowsers to locations around Keynsham for those who need water. Bowsers are water storage tanks holding thousands of litres of clean drinking water.”

Additional material would be useful to avoid uncertainty: “There is no limit on the amount of water you can take but you will need to bring your own container. We bring far more water than is required so you won’t miss out, but you may face queues if you arrive between these times…”

Timeframes would be useful. If you have elderly people having to walk down, when can they expect the bowsers to be there? Are they immediately operational or do they need unloading and stabilising? On Twitter, when you say that the bowsers are on their way, people assume they can leave right away and the bowsers will be there when they arrive. You should definitely delay announcing the arrival until all potential obstacles — e.g. traffic, uncertain access routes — have been overcome. You can just say “We will be deploying bowsers imminently” or similar.

If people are there to also collect water for vulnerable neighbours, social pressure is likely to put them off because other people will think they are taking more than their fair share or taking too much time. What’s the solution? Ask them to give you their neighbour’s address (if they have agreed, of course) — this allows you to build up your database of vulnerable residents at the same time.

#4 — Lose the jargon and the unquantifiable language

‘Have water’ is much better than ‘back in water.’ ‘Back in water’ implies they can finally relax again in their flooded living room! Jargon creates distance with the people you’re trying to connect with.

At one point you posted an update that “some” people in Brislington may have water. This is not an ideal update because it could mean one of several things:

  • A few people will have water because the process has started to resupply water to Brislington
  • A few people may accidentally have water as a side effect of something else going on within the network

Does ‘some’ mean 10? Or 2,000? What does it mean for other people in Brislington and further afield?

#5 — Add some colour and use new technology

Livestream the situation! It’s interesting, people want to know what fixing entails, and it’s your chance to educate people on how serious a mains leak is.

Also, who was involved in the fix? Where are they based? Not just the engineers, but the comms people, the people driving the water tanks, etc. I want to know who’s been mobilised! It’s a great opportunity for community building.

#4 — Remember that you’ll never please some people

As I mentioned above, some people think water is magically beamed to their taps. You could have got the water back on in 10 minutes and these people would have been miffed. Just ignore them. You guys are doing a great job.

Jamie Lawrence is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and copywriter living near Bristol, UK.