Asheville Water Crisis Led to Comms Crisis: Report

Thom Weidlich 06.15.23


Over last year’s Christmas holiday, Asheville, North Carolina, experienced a deep freeze accompanied by burst pipes and an 11-day water outage. A new report on the incident has some important things to say about crisis communications.

An independent panel was set up to examine the response, including communications. The city was widely criticized for its botched comms, especially its lack of explanation on what was happening and when things would return to normal.

The city faced challenges from the start. Its comms staff wasn’t trained in crisis and was unfamiliar with the water system, which meant it had less influence. The Water Resources Department led the comms, mostly through an emergency-alert system, which not all water customers were on. The comms team was relegated to a tactical role of producing the water department’s messages.

Strategic Role

That’s lesson number one: Comms needs to have a strategic role, a notion the report agrees with. It states that a major factor hampering the comms was the overall “operational approach” — the focus was on fixing the problem quickly. If that was accomplished, the need for outreach would lessen. But it also meant withholding information from the public, elected officials, the media and others.

And the problem wasn’t fixed quickly. “When an emergency escalates while using the ‘operational approach,’ gaps in communications are harshly revealed, trust is instantly placed at risk and extra comms work is required to keep public confidence,” the report says.

Though the water department internally declared an emergency on Christmas Day, the city didn’t relay that to the public and instead focused on water-conservation messages, which downplayed the seriousness, according to the report. “Meanwhile, the news media, elected officials and community leaders were getting calls from the public about their water being out.”

Officials Involved

Because of the lack of clarity in messaging and the general feeling that the crisis wasn’t being handled well, elected officials got more involved.

A big issue was the pressure applied by the mayor and a City Council member to announce when the water would flow again. People needed to know. Internally, a “goal” or “best-case scenario” was set at 24 to 48 hours. On Dec. 27, the Water Resources director announced that timeline, which the public viewed as definite. When the goal wasn’t achieved, trust eroded further.

That’s another lesson. The information distributed must be scrupulously accurate. The timeframe message, the report states, was one “no water-operations leader should say” and “no one trained in crisis communications would say.”

People Affected

Another issue was the city’s inability to convey how many people were affected. When it did, the number — 38,000 — turned out to be wrong; it was the number of people who signed up to receive alerts through the emergency-notification system. Because of their backseat role, communicators were unable to tell the others it was okay to say they didn’t know. Again, the information put out in a crisis must be correct.

Finally, another astute observation from the report: Once the press realizes what it’s being told is wrong, it switches its reporting from providing the public with useful knowledge about the crisis to digging into why the released information is false. It focuses on the bungled crisis response.

Photo Credit: Micimakin/Shutterstock

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