How NOT to Communicate with Utility Customers During Outages

“A live electric line just fell on a bus filled with senior citizens—what do you do?”

No, that wasn’t a line from Dennis Hopper in the movie, Speed. In fact, I was asked that question during an interview to become a spokesman at Salt River Project, a Phoenix-based electric and water utility.

I got the job, so I suppose I answered the question satisfactorily. That long-ago interview question surfaced as I read a New York Times about about how poorly some utilities were communicating with customers and elected officials about power restoration efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

A week after Hurricane Irene dissipated, tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey were still without power.

According to the Times article, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was “frustrated by the difficulty he encountered in getting some utilities to communicate.” Utility customers also were frustrated by a “lack of solid information about how long their plight would last.”

And what did Jeff Butler, president of Connecticut Light & Power, say when the bright lights of the news media were shining on him?  That the utility’s rates would have to increase to recover the estimated $75 million it was spending on power restoration.

Wow – talk about the wrong message to the wrong audience at precisely the wrong time … that was a real trifecta!

It’s too late for CL&P to benefit from my outage communication recommendations.  But I share them with you in the hope that they can prevent unnecessary pain and suffering the next time severe weather plunges your customers into darkness.

If he were my client, I would recommend Mr. Butler meet with work crews, customers, and elected officials wearing a logoed windbreaker and a hardhat. He would be photographed walking through darkened neighborhoods, meeting with customers, assuring them that crews were working diligently, 24/7, to get their power back on.

I also would recommend he “get his hands dirty” by helping hand out food, water, and supplies at local emergency stations. He’d be filmed meeting with employees and customers at outage sites, touring the damage and looking engaged with all of the utility’s stakeholders.

When Mr. Butler stepped to the microphones, he would limit his comments to saying that CL&P is working around-the-clock to restore power in a safe manner. He would provide an estimate as to when the lights in a given neighborhood would be back on.

If pressed by reporters, as he would be, Mr. Butler would be counseled to say, “We’re not thinking about the costs of restoring power. That’s tomorrow’s issue. Today’s issue is safely restoring power as quickly as possible, so you can get on with your lives. That’s all we’re focused on.”

After stepping away from the microphones, he would provide emergency service officials with a check from CL&P to help pay for the costs associated with relief efforts.

Because our 24/7 news cycle never ends, I would counsel Mr. Butler to go back into the field, interacting with customers and employees to continue fighting for control of the story.






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