The cryptosporidium crisis in the north west of England last summer revealed the power of social media for water companies and their customers, according to a director at United Utilities (UU).

Around 320,000 UU customers were affected by the incident in August 2015, in which the discovery of the parasite cryptosporidium led to boil water notices being issued in the area served by Franklaw Water Treatment Works in Preston, Lancashire. The notice stayed in place in some areas until 6th September, meaning that some customers were unable to drink their water for a month.

Louise Beardmore, Customer Service Director at United Utilities, spoke at the Institute of Water’s conference on Friday in Birmingham about the lessons learned from the incident from a customer service perspective.

“Customers want certainty, and the moment you are not able to provide that certainty then speculation creeps in,” Beardmore told the conference. “We didn’t want incorrect information to spread and we had to keep saying to our customers that ‘we are dealing with the issue as quickly as we can’.

“But this was the first major incident in our sector where the power of social media became apparent. You are not in control of those messages.”

She said that anti-fracking campaigners on Twitter made an entirely spurious link between the crisis and fracking activity; there was also an apparently malicious circulation of a fake web page claiming that restrictions had been lifted when they were actually still in place. At the height of the crisis, UU increased the size of its social media communications team to 40 people to cope with the number of questions from customers, who had a wide variety of queries about using the water, some of which were unforeseen.

UU sent around 200,000 text messages a day to customers during the crisis, and an equivalent volume of e-mails and web chat, added Beardmore.

“You need a mix of communication channels,” she said. “One of our biggest learnings was that we didn’t legitimise word of mouth as a channel. We didn’t want people to gossip and tell each other ‘our neighbour heard it from Twitter’. But really, when we were putting out our messages we could have encouraged people to tell their neighbours, to ensure that everybody was reached.”

At one point, when the company needed to communicate with customers via a card through their doors, it found that its regular contractor did not have the capacity to deliver the numbers required and Royal Mail was not able to deliver in time because it was a weekend. Over a thousand UU employees ended up walking the streets to deliver the necessary cards.

Beardmore chaired a strategic communications group which met with local authorities, police, social services and other local stakeholders; she said there was a “thirst for information” from these stakeholders. But she said the episode revealed the importance of the water company keeping its own data about its local area: for example, when it was trying to ensure that bottled water was delivered to all schools in the affected region, she was amazed that no complete list of schools was available from local authorities.

UU had 80 flatbed trucks delivering bottled water constantly to its list of vulnerable customers and locations such as hospitals. “We hate bottled water, but when you are in the midst of a crisis like this, it becomes your friend,” she said.

When it came to lifting the restrictions, the complication was that supply areas did not map exactly to postcodes, and so it was difficult to communicate the properties that were now safe in a way that did not risk some people getting the wrong message. The key was for UU to maintain control of the message on its website, not letting other media outlets publish the information first and only lifting restrictions when a whole postcode was clear.

Once the incident was over, UU earned praise for compensating affected customers quickly by cheque, said Beardmore.

“Customers trusted us during the crisis… we haven’t seen a decline in trust at all,” said Beardmore. “Customers don’t expect you to get it right all the time, but they do expect you to communicate well, compensate them when things go wrong and to learn the lessons from it,” she concluded.

This article originally appeared on wwtonline