A Lesson in Customer Communications – Portland Water Bureau

Is your company or organization prepared to handle customer communications when the unexpected happens?

Service disruptions and unexpected events require immediate engagement with your customers. The same tools that you use to engage and communicate with your customers for normal business activities need to be utilized in times of crisis.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the City of Portland’s Water Bureau experienced a crisis that required immediate and regular customer communications. How they handled this communication left some customers unhappy. Here’s what happened:

  • Sat afternoon, Nov 28th – Due to E-coli contamination, Portland issued its first ever “boil water” warning for all residents living west of the Willamette River.
  • As a result, concerned customers were actively seeking information on whether they were affected and what actions the city was advising its residents to do.
  • When customers visited the Water Bureau’s Twitter page, they saw this last tweet which was posted three days prior. In essence, it was the equivalent of a “Gone Fishing” sign. Whoever was responsible for Twitter and Facebook had left town for the holidays and would not be back until Monday.
  • The Water Bureau’s next twitter update wasn’t posted until Sunday, Nov 29th at 1:35 pm

This lapse of communication during the city’s first ever “boil water” warning is not only a customer communications failure; it surely embarrassed the City of Portland and its Water Bureau.

One can only hope that they learned a few valuable lessons. In order to help them make the necessary improvements, I offer the City of Portland the following advice:

  • Social Media operates in a 24×7 environment – it doesn’t take a holiday. Staff accordingly.
  • Do not rely on just one person for customer communications (single point of contact = single point of failure).
  • Make sure that all account information (for logging into forums, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc) is documented and accessible to a core group of responsible individuals.
  • Make sure that your main communications person has at least one backup who knows how to log-in and use all communications tools. Have them practice beforehand so they are comfortable enough to use the tools when the pressure is on.
  • Department managers should also know how to log-in and use the tools.
  • Provide regular updates – even if there is no new information to report, post that. Customers look for the date & time stamp of your updates. If too much time elapses between updates, they will stop checking your site for status updates.

In the end, it all worked out ok. The boil-water warning was lifted Sunday afternoon. And according to the Health Department, the E-coli bacteria did not sicken city residents. On Sunday afternoon, the Water Bureau started churning out informative updates on Twitter and Facebook. And (on the bright side) it was a good week to be selling bottled water!

Where did you go for information during the “boil water” warning period? What else could the city have done to improve their customer communications during this time? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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25 Responses to “A Lesson in Customer Communications – Portland Water Bureau”

  1. Carri Bugbee Says:

    Anne, great post! I think you did a fantastic job of pointing out the problems in an upbeat way that is instructional for all.

    As you know, I and some others who coalesced on Twitter around this issue plan to do a case study about the water bureau’s social media #fail. Like you, my goal isn’t to call anybody out, but I do hope the powers that be will recognize that we’re no longer living in an old media universe. The InterWebz have taken over and you can either learn to navigate or become roadkill on the Information Super Highway [ha! when was the last time you heard that term? A nod to the old-school communicators 😉 ].

    Of course, that means large organizations have to staff and train for crises and allocate resources to social media. That’s not something government can usually do all that quickly, but big business has no excuse for being slow to adopt the strategies you recommend.

    Social Profiles: http://www.CarriBugbee.com

  2. servicerox Says:

    Thanks Carri – your comments are “spot-on”. Organizations do need to staff, train and allocate resources to handle communications in today’s new-media universe.

    It can blow up so quickly – Twitter was definitely abuzz over the city’s handling of the e-coli issue. I will be very interested to read the case study when it is completed – a learning opportunity for all of us.

    This event serves as a reminder to our city gov’t that customers expect (and demand) information 24×7 – especially during times of crisis.

    Ahhh… I do remember the term “Information Super Highway” but I now prefer the infamous “series of tubes” term 🙂

  3. Lizzy Caston Says:

    Great post. Like Carri, my criticisms of the Water Bureau stem from wanting to make critical health and safety communications better overall.

    My perspective stems from best practices already in place in many other cities with regards for the need to have solid crises communications strategies, plans and procedures (including training) in place that integrate both traditional communications methods and new/social media. I think this is the key equation many organizations miss. There is still a tendency to “silo” social media off in its own corner as the “fun” thing used mainly as a morale booster or feel good PR tool – often in the hands of a single staff person. And thus, it isn’t managed to its highest and best use and can often be used in ways that turn out to be detrimental to that organization. (as per this case study).

    We’ve talked quite a lot about twitter here, but there were other gaping voids from the water bureau. Their Facebook page and blog remained stagnant and out of date as well – and those pages both reach and are reached (through web searches) large swathes of the population. Lots of negative comments and questions on those pages but nada from the bureau. In addition, when I googled “e coli portland” on both the water bureau’s website and the city’s website the 1st result to come up was a very out of date “information on e coli” page from October 14th that contained nothing on the e coli contamination but did say repeatedly (in so many words) that e coli contamination in Portland’s water would be very unlikely. Really? Water bureau needs to regularly scan their web page content and run their own online keyword searches to make sure ALL pages with critical info are up to date.

    Crises Communications: strategize & plan, coordinate, integrate, train, implement and constantly manage.

    Thus I’d like to add to your above suggestions that organizations (especially those in the public health and safety realm) should have an overall crises communications plan that integrates social media along with other tools such as phone notifications, web pages, etc. into the equation.

    The lessons here are good ones, and a good opportunity to help the City put down the foundation for better crises communications overall.

  4. servicerox Says:

    Hi Lizzy – your comments are excellent and comprehensive in scope. I agree that Social Media often gets put into a silo and is used for feel-good PR. It needs to be integrated more fully into communications planning and strategy.

    Documentation of the crisis communications plan is key. Because when an organization is dealing with a crisis, it is asking too much of people to try and wing-it.

    To the city’s credit, it appears that they are using this as a learning opportunity and are sincere in their efforts to implement improvements.

    Thanks for sharing – it certainly seems that you are experienced in crisis communications planning!

  5. Lizzy Caston Says:

    The funny part is that most of my knowledge comes from New Orleans, a city well known for crises communications. I spent the summer helping a non-profit with their communications plan for emergency evacuations (www.evacuteer.org). To be fair, since Katrina, I think New Orleans is leaps ahead of most other U.S. cities with regards to crises communications and social media. Their coordinated emergency alert system using phone, texting, web, social media and email that is integrated into traditional methods has been implemented into practice and is showing positive results (with a few hiccups).

    The main thing I learned from my research into this issue is that this isn’t unknown territory. Many best practice models for crises communications in government and for large organizations already exist and have been around for years. Portland does not need to reinvent the wheel here.

  6. Sarah Bott Says:

    This is a great critique. I work for for the Water Bureau public communications group and you make excellent points. I have forwarded this to our group.

  7. servicerox Says:

    Thanks Sarah – it’s so nice to see how responsive the city has been to address this opportunity.

    • Sarah Bott Says:

      We’re certainly trying! And thoughtful, informed input from other professionals is always welcome. Thanks again for taking the time to process through this.

  8. Debbie on the right coast Says:

    I like “Information Super Highway”, at least I know what that means! I would put on a yellow smiley-face but I only know how to do this one 🙂

    Good commentary (post?), Anne. In an event that impacts so many people, I agree, the word needs to get out via all forums, not just the local news on radio and TV ( which is my current source of info).
    This is my first official post, are you proud of me Neighbor?

    • servicerox Says:

      I am proud of you Debbie. Working in the health care field, I know you have experience with crisis communications. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment – and your yellow smiley face came through just fine! 🙂

  9. @missorian Says:

    These thoughts and points are exactly what a budding SM agency account needs when dealing with public issues.

    As I said, it did amaze me I received information via twitter when I was in Seattle. Had I not gotten that information I wouldn’t have been able to pick up water before heading home. Saved me some agro for sure.

    More so on your post. I think it’s a good lesson for any government agency to remember words travel faster nowadays and when you #fail, everyone knows about it. Thank you for posting a “ways to improve” rather than “you guys totally botched it” post. Always so positive! 🙂

    • servicerox Says:

      Hi MissOrian –

      Me too – Twitter is how I knew what was going on. @MayorSamAdams was very active on twitter which was a huge help. We all learn from our mistakes.

  10. notinoregon Says:


    You state:
    “Sat afternoon, Nov 28th – Due to E-coli contamination, Portland issued its first ever “boil water” warning for all residents living west of the Willamette River.”

    But then you go on to say that the water bureau did NOT communicate online.

    Which is it?

    • servicerox Says:

      Both are true – City issued the warning via traditional media channels but nothing was published online via the Water Bureau’s online presence (blog, FB, twitter).

      Lizzy Caston’s comment above has a good analysis of what one could find online via City or Water Bureau’s sites. @MayorSamAdams was tweeting and his tweets got re-tweeted a lot which was helpful.

  11. Jan(droid) Says:

    I have to commend the Mayor (@mayorsamadams) for at least doing some timely tweeting of his own, even as people were misinterpreting the map the news was using. Folks confused the red outline of Multnomah County with the area being affected, when it was just the area filled in with yellow along the westside of the Willamette well within County borders that was affected. I saw at least one tweet saying a radio station was indicating the east side might be affected based on this with much ensuing speculation. I ended up sending the Mayor a DM indicating some rumors were spreading about eastside water being unsafe needing to be quashed (or verified) accordingly, and indeed, he responded with a more pointed update first thing the next morning as well as a DM of thanks to me. (If only I were paid to tweet, sigh – I’m currently unemployed.)

    Though indeed it would have been better if the Water Bureau themselves had been on the Twitter stick for sure. I think they’re appreciating why Multco Chairman Ted Wheeler wanted to hire someone who can tweet and use Facebook for the County a little bit more now. Ironically Ted himself was live-tweeting his own hospitalization post-skiing accident at the same time. (Very pleased to report he’s doing better and is already recuperating at home, thankfully).

    I also think using social media tools needs to be a job skill now for all key administrators (and everyone else for that matter) in our governing bodies for just such occasions as you already described above, so that if your point person is indeed out for whatever reason, others can pick up the communication ball and run with it among all the platforms. (Web, Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, etc.) Kind of like not letting all your IT staff travel in the same car to a conference… at least an accident won’t take the whole department out at one time as I’ve seen happen. (You need to backup humans as well as data/equipment/systems). It is a new information age we live in, and we’re all having to adapt. That being said, would we be nearly this up in arms BT (Before Twitter)? I’m guessing the phone lines might have been a little more heated, but otherwise the Water Bureau was operating under prior “normal” modus operandi. I also see they are going to improve their notification systems, and am looking forward to seeing their upcoming adaptations.

    Thankfully all is well that ended well – I’ve yet to hear any reports of illness, though I’m guessing there may have been a few, hopefully mild. I do believe adopting the new tools of social media will go a long way to helping our governmental bodies keep us informed and up to date. Thanks for this forum for great rational discussion of same. ~ Jan (@jandroid)

    • servicerox Says:

      Hi Jan –

      Like you, I think the Mayor’s tweeting was very helpful. How many other cities have mayors who tweet? Our Mayor rocks! 🙂

      I am also looking forward to learning more about their improvements for notifying city residents of urgent issues. Old media just doesn’t cut it in a new media world but it isn’t just tools, it’s having a comprehensive plan as Lizzy noted in her comments above.

      Thanks for your thoughtful insight. It’s a great discussion so far!

  12. Ed Borasky Says:

    I’ve looked at the Twitter data from the weekend, and the first tweet about the E. Coli was Mayor Adams’ announcement, which went out at 4:06:33 PM. In other words, the news broke on Twitter from the Mayor’s office. That’s encouraging. And to those who are saying the Portland Water Bureau should have done more – well, Mayor Adams has quite a few more followers – 11,030 vs. 1,987 for @PortlandWater.

    I think we need to look at the numbers! How many people get their news from Twitter vs. the local television and radio stations? Does anyone even measure that yet, and, if so, who? I’m more concerned, for example, about the fact that I heard about it on Twitter and *not* on the radio on KQAC-FM.

    • servicerox Says:

      Hi Ed – thanks for providing your analysis of the Twitter data. I don’t follow @MayorSamAdams but I did receive retweets of his. And like you, I heard about it first on Twitter and then from FB friends who were posting about it.

      I think the general consensus is that Portland has an opportunity now to improve their crisis comms preparations and strategy. The strategy should use all available comms tools – traditional and new media. And maybe incorporating some some new tools such as robo-calls or text message alerts.

      But even with the best tool set available, if you don’t have documented procedures, if you don’t staff and train your resources effectively, then the plan will not be successful.

  13. Twitted by urbangrindpdx Says:

    […] This post was Twitted by urbangrindpdx […]

  14. Dave Allen Says:

    It’s clear that that the City needs a communication strategy, that’s all. Having a social media strategy without a city-wide communications strategy would be worse. Social media is just a tool set. People who are yammering on about Twitter miss the point. Twitter is one tool in the toolbox. If the Water Bureau didn’t respond it was only that there wasn’t a central plan for handling communications throughout a holiday weekend.

    Too many negative Twitter hashtags were bouncing around such as #fail, and to me that just shows, that when it comes to social media most people are blind to the fact that without brand strategy there is no social media strategy. Therefore the correct hashtag would have been #PDXCityHallFail

    Social media and its proponents are a distraction.

    • servicerox Says:

      I agree with you Dave – Portland needs a comprehensive comms strategy that incorporates all tools (not just Social Media). Yes, it happened on a holiday weekend but the plan needs to be enhanced for any time – not just holidays.

      As a general concept, I agree that SoMe strategy fits within brand strategy, but I don’t understand your point about brand strategy in regards to Portland City Hall. This past weekend highlighted the need for improvements to our city’s communications planning & strategy, but it was not a brand strategy fail.

      I think the City is showing its true mettle by being very responsive and receptive to community feedback. Their response aligns with my brand perception of Portland which is that our city is inclusive and receptive to community input.

      • Dave Allen Says:

        I already said that there appears to be no central plan or communications strategy for the city. So we agree there..

        So if it wasn’t a failure of brand strategy can you explain to me what PDX’s brand strategy is? Seeing the Mayor get a little pissy with people in Twitter doesn’t seem to me to be aligning with any strategy, or shall we say, it was at least off-base. And it’s not a “general concept” re SoMe strategy fitting within brand strategy, they can not be separated..

        Yes the City is responsive to community feedback but what it does with that feedback and how it reacts to it, has to align with its brand strategy. Your brand perception of Portland is fine, but is that a result of City Hall’s brand strategy? I think not, it’s your personal reaction to how the events unfolded, others may have a very different perception (I certainly do). Portland’s brand cannot be defined only by how it reacts to events or how it communicates with the community- it has to have a strategy that is impermeable every day. Crisis or no crisis, it will serve it well.

  15. carribugbee Says:

    Dave, you bring up a good point. Social media just represents tools for brand strategy support, PR and other marketing communications. As an old-school marketer of 20+ years, I assume that always goes without saying. Perhaps I assume too much.

    However, I don’t think this was a failure of brand strategy. It was a failure of crisis communications planning and resource allocation. The city obviously has tools and methodologies in place to contact the news media quickly, which has been the only thing local government ever needed to do in the past.

    However, we all have much higher expectations of connectivity and timeliness now. All of which require more personnel to manage. Social media won’t be the answer for all the city’s communications needs. Some (like the elderly) will need robo-calls, which is why that’s now a topic of discussion. But that will take some time and money to implement. Social media is fast and cheap by comparison.They just need to do a little cross-training so they’ll have coverage in a crisis.

    I suspect most government entities probably don’t allot resources to make anything happen until there is a demonstrated need for it. After the outrage last spring when Ted Wheeler wanted to hire a social media specialist, I’m surprised anyone in local government would even dare write on a Facebook page or post to the Twitter! 😉

    Now that people have complained and recognized the need for 21st century communications tools, I think it will be more acceptable for local government to embrace those tools and pay for the required ramp-up and training.


  16. Dave Allen Says:

    Carri, Ok let’s assume then, that there is no brand strategy at play here, as both you and Servicerox seem to be implying. And we all agree that it was the lack of a communications strategy that created a communications failure. Where does that leave us?

    You say “we all have much higher expectations of connectivity and timeliness now. All of which require more personnel to manage.” The “we” you refer to is not a majority, so “we” all do not expect that. Some people are very happy receiving updates via TV and newspapers for instance, you can not fault them.

    My question is, how would you advise the City if there is absolutely no budget available to have personnel to fill this role? Also, why does it automatically be a requirement that City Hall uses Social Media? This is where brand strategy comes in – starting with discovery, analysis, research and testing to see what PDX citizen’s expect of City Hall’s communications strategy. Without those insights everything else is conjecture..

  17. carribugbee Says:

    The “we” (that immediately looks for breaking news online) is a pretty big crowd. Everyone knows if you want immediate information, you’ll find it on the Internet. Even people who don’t have Internet at home know this. Likewise, most people don’t make any distinction between Web sites and blogs (or other social media), they just know they can usually find what they want via Google.

    To that end, anyplace and everyplace online that can be updated with very little technical knowledge or time commitment should be utilized in a crisis. More information, more frequently updated, is a good thing!

    Policy wonks and public officials will never be uploading html pages, but they can all learn to tweet or write a Facebook update if their one communications professional is out of town. They could probably even learn to upload a blog post or a press release, if hard pressed.

    These tools are fast, easy and cheap (actually the tools are free, but spending a little time on training and prep would require a minimal investment). That’s why City Hall should embrace them for crisis communications. Whether they use them for branding is another story that would require more planning and fewer people. But when it comes to a crisis, it’s all hands on deck!

    For crisis planning, I wouldn’t advise going through a long, complicated process of gathering insights. I’d just advise them to get cross-trained on the most widely used tools and use them occasionally so they don’t forget how in a clinch.

    That wouldn’t be expensive at all. They might even be able to find some highly qualified volunteers to offer training from a professional association like…oh…maybe Social Media Club?! 😉

    It could happen.


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