Water for the People, But A Crisis for the Company

When a natural disaster occurs, it is always encouraging to see how much help, love, and prayers are poured forth from the general public. People and companies across the world donate what they can to help. Recently, the Philippines have seen some of that generosity. The country is recovering from a massive typhoon that devastated communities across the islands. Now the people are struggling to find food and clean water. So when Instagramers saw that People Water was offering to solve that problem, they jumped on the bandwagon pretty quickly.

People Water is a company that defines itself as a “for-profit, cause-based business that is committed to alleviating the global water crisis.” Their claim is that for every bottle of People Water purchased, the company will give an equal amount of clean water to someone in need. On November 12th, the picture below appeared on Instagram with the caption “EVERY REPOST = 1 @peoplewater will donate $1 for every repost #peoplewater”.

people water

Cody Barker, one of the founders of People Water, was the one who originally posted this picture. It soon exploded all over social media as people started sharing in support of the Philippines. However, People Water posted on Instagram a day later explaining that they weren’t entirely on board with this campaign. “People Water’s management was not consulted about this campaign before it was posted to our social media outlets,” claimed the post. “In an honest attempt to help those in need, some of our employees hurriedly decided to launch this initiative…Although our employees’ intent was sincere, we are troubled by what may be perceived as an advertising campaign based on those who are seriously suffering.” They go on to say that they will honor their commitment for the first day’s shares during their regular business hours, but that they can’t afford to give any more.

Looking at this from a public relations standpoint, People Water did almost everything right. They were honest with their public and tried to communicate that to them as best they could. They shared the “open letter” on their website and Instagram, making it as clear as possible that they didn’t want to hide anything. As Coombs advises in Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics by Dennis L. Wilcox and Glen T. Cameron, People Water minimized their responsibility for the fiasco by making excuses. While this may seem like a cop-out, finding someone else to blame is a successful way to change the way the public views your business. In this case, the scapegoat was Cody Barker. Unfortunately, he didn’t have full permission from the company to post such a generous offer. Because of his actions and their “limited resources,” People Water was put in an awkward place. In an attempt to save their reputation, they had to let Barker go and show their public that they are doing everything they can to ensure this won’t happen again.

But not everything was handled correctly. Many Instagram users claimed that they couldn’t reach the company by phone or email in the aftermath of the crisis. Whether this was due to an influx of phone calls or the company was purposely avoiding their customers, People Water violated the number one rule during a public relations crisis: be accessible. Had they picked up the phone, they might not have so many angry consumers talking smack about them on social media.

What do you think People Water should have done? How should they move forward?

– Christine Schulze