How DC Water Made a Bad Day Better Using Social Media


Imagine if in the midst of rush hour during the hustle and bustle of the busy holiday season, a water main break occurs in the middle of a major metropolitan area, completely inundating a large section of the public transportation system and affecting tens of thousands of commuters.

This nightmare actually occurred in our nation’s capital on December 16. For members who have dealt with similar issues, you can surely sympathize with the challenges faced by DC Water during this crisis, not least among which was keeping the public informed.

Social media can be very beneficial during such events and can afford the ability to transform a crisis into an opportunity to educate the public and provide exceptional customer service.

We’ve asked Andy Le, DC Water’s Digital Communications Manager to tell us about his job and how a typical bad day for any utility was brightened with social media, a little customer service and a lot of patience (and coffee – don’t forget the coffee!). 

Why is DC Water investing in digital engagement?
It all starts at the top. General Manager George S. Hawkins understands the importance of communicating with our ratepayers. They need to understand what we’re doing and that their monthly water bill is going to good use.

Why social media and not newsletters or doing more traditional press?
It’s not an either/or scenario. We have to meet the customer where they’re at. The media marketplace is really fragmented and not everyone reads the local newspaper. More people are opting for paperless billing so they’re not going to see the monthly newsletter that’s attached to the bill.

The public is adopting social media in greater numbers and its incumbent upon government agencies to build out a digital presence or “storefront” for their customers to visit and engage.  First and foremost, our digital presence is a customer service portal. We address everyday issues without necessitating an office visit or a phone call. It doesn’t get much easier than a Tweet.

That makes up a fair amount of our traffic and we embrace that opportunity to show government dollars hard at work. In my experience, the general concern for leadership is that the more responsive that an agency is on social media, the more it invites requests and questions. That is absolutely true and we welcome it.  Unlike traditional communication transactions, each interaction on social media has an audience and DC Water gets to show off our good work (people even ask us to blog about customer service).

Once an agency demonstrates that their digital presence is of value to customers, that’s when you can start having some fun.

And more fun

And sometimes, fun can also be useful.  In this particular instance, a popular DC blog posted about a mural that had been marred because a manhole cover hadn’t been put back into its original position. We took it as an opportunity to have some fun and show that we’re an agency that listens to our customers’ concerns.

Case study of customer service

12th Street Water Main Break
On December 16th, a 12-inch water main broke on 12th St. NW and F St. NW during the morning rush hour. The main is situated above Metro Center, a major hub in the Washington Metro and Transit Authority’s (WMATA) subway system.  The water overflowed down into one of WMATA’s air shafts and submerged the train tracks.

Our immediate thought was that we needed to help share this information. There’s going to be a lot of people who will be negatively affected by this and we needed to divert as many people away from the Metro as we could.

So we retweeted trusted sources especially those that had alternative travel methods:

WAMU’s Transportation Report Martin Di Caro

NBC-4’s Traffic Reporter

As I’m doing this, I’m also sending information up the chain to John Lisle, our Chief of External Affairs. Once I got in touch with the appropriate staff, who updated me on the situation and the impact of the delays, we began providing context to the situation. We’ve found that in most cases, the lack of communication from an agency during a crisis exacerbates the situation.

I tweeted this before my second cup of coffee and did the math incorrectly. It’s okay to make a mistake. Its social media and most people know that things like this will happen. 

We tweeted a correction a few minutes later.

We apologized for the delay. It’s easy to do. Our customers are adults who can forgive us for mechanical failures. However, they won’t forgive an agency that doesn’t own the problem and apologize for it.  

See what I mean?

You can also use this as an opportunity to slide in some customer education.

In one instance, the 12th St. water main break was a huge problem that inconvenienced thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people but it was also a teachable moment where we had our audience’s attention.

After the rush hour ended, it was just an issue of providing updates until the problem was resolved.

Here are a few of the updates that we provided until the repair was complete:

And we're finished.

Once the main repair was underway, it’s OK to poke a little fun at the situation.  A friend of mine (who obviously has too much time on her hands) sent me this – I wish I had thought of it to send out to our followers.


Here’s a Storify of the 12th St NW water main break:

If you’d like to keep in touch and see how we’re engaging our customers, please follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  (Seriously. Help me keep my job!)

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