‘There’s something in the water’ – but how was this crisis handled?

Have you swum in the sea this summer?

After what seems like an endless run of stories about sewage on our coastline in recent months, you’d probably be forgiven for staying out of the water.

But that’s not an option for everyone. And some seem to be paying a heavy price.

At least 57 triathletes were struck down with sickness and diarrhoea following the World Triathlon Championship series in Sunderland.

The event, the UK leg of the World Triathlon Championship series, included a swim off the city’s Roker beach.

And many of the 2,000 competitors fell ill soon after.

Unsurprisingly, the story has grabbed plenty of media attention:

Fifty-seven swimmers fall sick and get diarrhoea at world triathlon championship in Sunderland Guardian

Dozens of triathletes struck down with diarrhoea and vomiting after ‘swimming in s**t’ Independent

Nearly 60 triathletes get diarrhoea after swimming in Sunderland Metro

At least 57 swimmers fall ill after UK triathlon competition Al Jazeera

DON'T TRI THIS AT HOME Up to 60 athletes get diarrhoea after Sunderland triathlon event as one rants: That’s what happens when you swim in s*** The Sun

'Who’s to blame’ is a question often asked by journalists during crisis communication incidents.

But it is a little tricky to get to the bottom of that question here – so to speak.

Environment Agency sampling at the beach in late July detected 39 times the amount of e-coli found in the water during typical readings. E-coli is a bacterial infection that can cause stomach pain and diarrhoea.

Jake Birthwistle, an Australian athlete who competed in the event, shared the Environment Agency findings on Instagram.

He said: “Have been feeling pretty rubbish since the race, but I guess that’s what you get when you swim in s***. The swim should have been cancelled.

“At least I know now what got me and a bunch of other athletes who raced sick and ill.”

But British Triathlon, the governing body for UK triathlons, said those results were not published until after the events.

And added that they were outside the body of the water where the competition took place.

It also said its testing had passed the required standards.

Meanwhile, Northumbrian Water has insisted it is not the bad guy in this story.

A spokesperson said: “We have had no discharges from any of our assets that might negatively impact water quality at either Roker or the neighbouring Whitburn North bathing water since October 2021.”

And the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has refused to be drawn on whether filthy water was to blame for the illness.

It added that it would send those with symptoms a questionnaire and ask them to send a sample for testing to determine the cause of the illness.

As you can see, the answer to what went wrong seems about as clear as the water. More questions than answers and explanations.

But some clarity did eventually emerge yesterday (15/8) - the day this blog was first published - when the UKHSA said that Norovirus was the "most likely explanation of illness in participants.”

This is a story that has been potentially damaging to the reputation of the sport, those who organise it, the companies and authorities involved, and potentially the North East.

So, what can we learn about crisis communication from it?

Well, to answer that, let’s look at the statement from British Triathlon.

“British Triathlon and World Triathlon are aware of illness among some participants following 2023 World Triathlon Championship Series Sunderland,” it said.

“We have communicated with participants regarding the situation and we will continue to work with Sunderland City Council and the UK Health Security Agency North East (UKHSA North East) in line with their routine processes to establish further information.

“Whilst the cause of this illness is being investigated by the relevant authorities, anyone who is or who has been feeling unwell is encouraged to view the online resources below.”

And it goes on to talk about concerns about water quality and the tests carried out before the competition.

We speak a lot about the importance of showing you are taking action in your crisis responses. And talking about the investigations taking place is an excellent way of doing that.

But the statement is cold and methodical.

Compassion is a crucial part of crisis communication.


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Sure, no one died in this incident. But people – elite athletes – have spent the night with their heads down the toilet. Or sat on it.

Would it hurt to show some empathy for them and apologise for so many feeling ill immediately after an event you have hosted? You can be sorry without admitting fault.

Fittingly, during our crisis communication training, we use the CARE acronym. It stands for Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples.

And there is a reason compassion comes first. You must show the audience you understand the severity of what has happened and the impact it has had. Empathy and humanity are pivotal.

Something else we stress during our crisis communication training is the importance of visible leadership.

When you are in the firing line – and there was plenty of media interest in this story – statements should come from the top.

Quotes from CEOs or other senior leaders show the crisis is being taken seriously at the top of the organisation and that those leaders care. And that can offer some reassurance.

Anonymous statements, like the one from British Triathlon – and most other organisations involved in this story - don’t have the same impact. And that allows the narrative to to be led by others - in this case, athletes complaining about the state of the water. 

The only person I’ve seen quoted or interviewed about the subject is UKHSA chief executive Professor Dame Jenny Harries.

Appearing on Radio 4’s Today programme, she was careful not to get drawn into speculation about the cause of the incident and, if it was caused by e.coli, where that came from.

She said: "As I think both Northumbrian Water and the organisers British Triathlon have said, there are a number of different samples, different testing points, and there will be samples from the individual athletes. And until we have all of that put together it's very important to think carefully about what associations are being made, none of that is available at the moment."

This is a good approach from spokespeople during a crisis. Journalists ask speculative questions, and you must avoid getting drawn into saying something later revealed to be wrong or that you regret.

But there was again a lack of compassion for those caught up in the incident.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting thing about this interview from a media training perspective was that Professor Harries appeared to be on the programme to talk about the organisation’s progress on its aim to respond to any new pandemic threat with a vaccine within 100 days.

This was mentioned in the introduction to the interview.

Yet, that was the third subject brought into the conversation by the journalist - after the triathlon sickness and conditions on the Bibby Stockholm.

And that serves as a vital reminder for all spokespeople that what you want to discuss might not be the same as what the journalist has in mind.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our crisis communication training and media training courses.


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