The need for a rethink of how the water sector communicates, internally, and with the media and the public, was a theme of the UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) fourth annual conference, which took place in London, the UK, on 30 Nov 2023.
In the first session of the day, Thames Water head of media relations Suvra Jans, representing the UKWIR board, said, “The water sector never had so much interest from customers, politicians and media and with this interest must come an acute sense of responsibility.
“As the pressures mounts, we must collaborate and use evidence-based research to help change the narrative about what we are doing.”
Keynote speaker Colin Skellett, Wessex Water CEO, focused on encouraging greater investment in infrastructure, and the need to push for broader collaboration. He said, “The truth is water services are too cheap and the agenda is driven by lobby groups, the media and politicians. As a result, the investment decisions have not always been science-based or focused on environmental need, and this must change.”
Catherine Wenger, Arup water business lead, called for “progressive partnerships with communities and citizen scientists.” In her presentation, Wenger discussed the water pressures created by the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI), community ownership of resources, and reframing wildlife as a stakeholder.
Journalist Karma Loveday, founder and editor of The Water Report, focused on how recent, negative media attention has eroded public trust, arguing that the key to shifting the narrative is through aligning on a shared plotline for the sector. She also outlined ways the water industry can improve relationships with mainstream media and journalists:
“Water is no longer a silent service,” she said. “There is a real interest and an appetite to know more about the health of our environment and water supplies [and] the way forward is to engage with journalists, challenge incomplete narratives and start to build relationships with media.”
Founder and CEO of innovation intelligence company BlueTech Research Paul O’Callaghan, who is also executive producer of the award-winning Netflix documentary Brave Blue World, urged the attendees to find the positive human stories behind the work they do. He said organisations in water should implement communication strategies that empower the public to become ‘prosumers’ of water who are actively involved in the water cycle, for example by incentivising customers to capture water via rainwater harvesting in their homes and businesses.
UKWIR CEO Steve Kaye spoke about the strategic direction of UKWIR and its subsidiary platform Spring, over the coming asset management plan (AMP) period 2025-2030. According to Kaye, short-term plans include increasing engagement with a wider range of stakeholders to shape the organisation’s research programme. Spring was established in 2021 and focuses on collaboration and knowledge-sharing to complement UKWIR research focus. Carly Perry, Spring’s managing director, said immediate goals for the organisation include increasing its service offering and facilitating enhanced knowledge sharing.