Truthful Crisis Communication: the Bottled Water Saga


How many times have we said that where a crisis can occur, it will? And who would have imagined (unless you are a public relations expert) that the cholera outbreak would catch some water brands with their pants down?

As the nation mourns the loss of life to the dreaded disease, our attention has turned to one of the most basic of necessities; access to clean water. Never mind the fact that Harare tap water is unfit for human consumption.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the safety and accessibility of drinking water are major concerns throughout the world.

“Health risks may arise from consumption of water contaminated with infectious agents, toxic chemicals, and radiological hazards. Improving access to safe drinking-water can result in tangible improvements to health,” WHO say.

Inability to provide for this basic right has led to a million dollar industry that bottles drinking water for sale to consumers.

We have taken the safety of bottled water for granted for years. To the extent that, many believe that water sold in supermarkets and other outlets is the safest to drink.


Cholera Breaks Out

As the cholera epidemic hogged headlines from the beginning of the latest outbreak, the story suddenly shifted the nation’s focus. The Zimbabwe Independent revealed that the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) in a confidential report, found that producers and suppliers were selling ‘contaminated’ bottled water.

The report said that bottled water with high levels of heterotrophic plate counts (HPC), which are above Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) acceptable drinking water limit of agar plate count per millilitre of 100.

In the confidential report to government, only 6 out of 17 brands sampled were found to be selling safe water. The other 11 had unacceptable levels of bacteria.

Never mind the jargon, but the story painted quite a ghastly picture for citizens, especially the affluent, of the possibility of them falling seriously ill from ‘dirty water.’

The Bottled Water Saga

Predictably, the big brands came out with guns blazing. They took out huge editorial space to deny any culpability. They were saying that the state agency was making ‘false allegations’ and that the results were wrong.

In a thinly veiled threat, one of the brands in question even went on to suggest that The Independent should recant the story. This broke one of the sacrosanct rules of crisis communications; don’t shoot the messenger for being the bearer of bad news!

The Independent did what any concerned publication would do. That is, to share with the public a report on an issues that could significantly threaten their wellbeing. We agree that the report confidential, yet the weight of accountability was just too huge to ignore or brush aside.

Another telling aspect about one of the advertorials was that it was it ominously bore the signature of the corporate secretary, a lawyer perhaps. I am sure the import of this was not lost on EMA and The Independent- the intended targets. This also highlighted one of PR’s longstanding conflicts, the one between them and internal legal counsel when any crisis breaks.

Legal Implications

Legal insists on a more deliberate and cautious response that minimises the possibility of litigation. PR always acts according to the ‘court of public opinion’ that demands swift answers, an expression of concern and assurance that the organisation was getting to the bottom of the issue.

In many instances, legal carries veto rights over communications. But it is PR’s territory to give a response that is uses the right tone, language and pitch. Never mind what goes on in the background; the brand should use the opportunity to allay fears, take the high road and keep its nose clean.

But then follow up story reveals the shadier side of corporate politics. Here, The Independent exercises another of media relation’s unwritten rules. That they always have the last say.

We are informed that the bottled water companies whose products tested positive to bacterial contamination ‘fruitlessly tried to arm-twist the Environmental Management Agency into disowning both the test results and an accompanying report in a bid to cover their tracks’ and protect their brands.

The story does not end there. When EMA refused to play ball, they approached a whole government minister to try and get them to look the other way. Two things stand out here; the integrity of a government agency that refuses to be unduly influenced, and the lack of remorse displayed by the companies in question.

What is also instructive is the stance taken by the companies in the EMA report that closely resembles that of international brands confronted with a similar report from Orb Media, a non-profit journalism organisation using scientists from the University of New York.

Orb Media examined 259 bottles from nine countries and 11 brands, including Aquafina (PespsiCo), Dasani (CocaCola), Evian (Danone), Nestlé Pure Life and San Pellegrino (Nestlé). The report claimed that around 93% of the bottled water they tested showed some sign of ‘microplastic’ contamination.

The results were immediately dismissed as ‘weak’ and ‘alarmist.’ All stood by the safety of bottled water and emphasized high quality standards and adherence with regulations. Sounds familiar?

No showing of remorse nor taking responsibility to find out whether the results were worth following up. The question is whether these brands actually took heed of PR counsel, their moral compass?

Crisis Management

A crisis should be an “opportunity for the company to demonstrate what it believes in and live its mission statement,” says Brian West of Fleishman-Hillard. The cost of loss of reputation exceeds any litigation by far.

As you go through the crisis communications process, it’s always important to reflect on a measured response. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • What steps did we take to come to that conclusion?
  • What steps should we have taken instead?
  • How did we react to the situation?

The next few days will determine whose advice would prevail between PR and legal counsel.


Lenox Mhlanga is Lead Consultant at Magna Carta Reputation Managements. For more information and business enquiries, contact us today.

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