Utility Crisis Communications: Q&A with an Expert | Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of our interview on utility crisis communications in last month’s blog, you will want to check it out here. This month, we are continuing our conversation with veteran crisis communicator Tom Fladung of Hennes Communications.

From wildfires in Hawaii to hurricanes in Florida, and sweltering heat, ice storms, boil-water notices, tornadoes, and extended service outages everywhere in between, 2023 has provided many crises (or near crises) on which utility communicators must communicate. That’s why we sat down with Thomas Fladung (left), managing partner at Hennes Communications, a crisis communications firm, to assess the current state of utility crisis communications.

Question: You’ve been on both sides of crisis communications: as a newspaper reporter and editor and as a crisis communications practitioner. All told, you’ve got nearly four decades in this game. What’s different, and what’s still true?

Answer: How we communicate has changed profoundly. We are living through the first era of truly instant communication where literally everyone is potentially a publisher. There’s good and bad to this, of course. Think of the array of news and information sources we now have literally a click away. At the same time, the system of fact checking and editing that was developed over decades by news organizations has now largely gone away. At one of the newspapers where I worked, every front-page story was edited at least six times. Now, most of the stuff carried by social media platforms goes through no fact-checking. Information is flowing freely but assuring that it’s reliable information is now more the responsibility of the news consumer.

Social media has brought its own set of opportunities and challenges. People still don’t seem to understand a couple of fundamental facts. First, if you post something  on the internet, you should assume it will never go away. Second, the moment you post something on social media, you’ve lost control of it. You don’t control who reads it, how it’s interpreted, or what others do with it.

Time after time, we see crises start because someone in an organization posts something on social media that they shouldn’t have.

All this has put reputations, earned over years, more at risk of being damaged, in hours or even minutes. For us, all this also means it’s more important than ever to tell your own story.

I like to use the example of a nonprofit organization that discovered an employee had stolen a large amount of money. We recommended the group break the news themselves, say what happened, how it was going to impact their fundraising, and what steps it was taking to make sure this didn’t happen again. The group followed our advice, and the story was not this “scandal at this nonprofit.” Rather, it was the nonprofit policing itself and fixing the problem.

We tell our clients that you can’t communicate your way out of a problem. You must work your way out of it. And then you must truthfully and clearly communicate those actions.

Credit: Boston Globe

Then, and this is particularly important for utilities, if you don’t deal with the problem that’s right in front of you, you invite outsiders, some of whom may dislike your organization, to layer that problem on to what happened in the past, adding it  to old grievances, and now you have a bigger problem.

Question: What can utility communicators do, today, to become better crisis communicators?

Answer: Use peacetime wisely. Every day your organization is not in crisis,  you need to use that relentlessly to educate your customers, your employees, all your stakeholders, about what your utility does, how you do it, and why you do it. Constantly inform stakeholders about how you work and the efforts you make to protect employees and the environment.

For example, any time a utility is required to close a road to install new poles, pipes, or wires, don’t focus on the inconvenience drivers will face. Acknowledge it, sure. Don’t deny the obvious. But more importantly, also explain why you are closing the road: to improve the quality of service you deliver. You are making the power more reliable, the gas pipes safer, and plugging leaks in old pipes. This is not putting lipstick on a pig. This is informing and educating those who are most important to your organization. In so doing, you are creating goodwill that may one day be used to cushion your organization when it experiences a problem or crisis.

Communications Tip of the Month: Use peacetime wisely. Communications aren’t just important during the tough times. In fact, they’re more important when things are going well. You must continually tell your story during non-crisis times.

In my experience, utilities hate rate cases. So often they put them off as long as they can. With inflation running so high in 2022-2023, that means there are added pressures pushing upward on prices.

But beyond a certain point, around 5%, customers don’t care if they’re now getting more reliable service or cleaner water, or if you haven’t raised their prices since the Clinton presidency. That’s another reason to talk up your investments on a regular basis, so that when you must have a rate case, there’s more of a chance that people will remember why prices are going up: cleaner water, safer gas service, more reliable, and sustainable, electricity.

Educate, educate, educate!

Question: Years ago, I think it was in the Clinton presidency, there was a lot of talk about the ability to “spin” the news this way or that, to try to evade responsibility. Your thoughts about “spin”?

Answer: Spin, or shading the truth, is the first cousin of lying. People see through it, some sooner than others. Once you get found out, and it will happen, you’re going to have a bigger problem.

When a crisis first hits, your leaders may not know exactly what they’re going to do to fix the crisis, but you can say, in a straightforward and non-technical way, here’s the problem, here’s how we going to fix it, here’s what we’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You need to step out of your “utility” shoes and step into the shoes of “John Q. Public” and the other stakeholders who are most important to your organization.

Question: With all the controversy over decarbonization and the energy transition, has “climate communications” become a form of crisis communications for the many electric utilities that have legacy coal or gas plants?

Answer: Hennes Communications hasn’t dealt with climate communications, per se, but here’s the way we would approach that: Increasingly, severe weather is happening and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are increasing. If you recognize those looming challenges, prepare initial messages now so they can be used as needed. That’s what a crisis communications plan is — a plan that can be customized as needed that describes what your organization will say, when it will be said, how it will be said, who will be the face and voice of the organization, and to whom the messages will be addressed.

Yes, every crisis is different, so you will need to customize it, but in general, you need to have something blessed by the CEO, Human Resources, and the lawyers, so that you’re ready to go when the crisis hits. Whether it’s climate, an extended outage, an operational breakdown, or employee misdeeds, you can be prepared.

Question: Is there a return on investment (ROI) on crisis communications?

Answer: Of course, ROI is much easier to calculate after your crisis has been managed. I’m speaking about stock price, customer satisfaction, public perception, employee departure, those sorts of things.

Forbes magazine reported on a survey it conducted with 243 U.S. business leaders about crisis communications. Half (49%) reported that they have a formal crisis communication plan. Nearly three in 10 (28%) said they have an informal or undocumented crisis communications plan, whatever that means. I assume it means they don’t have a plan. And the rest, about one-quarter, said they weren’t sure.

Of that 49% who said their organizations had a formal crisis communications plan, 98% of organizations that have had to activate their crisis communications plan said it was effective. Three-quarters (77%) of those said it was “very effective.” So what’s the debate? If you want to survive a crisis, have a plan. If you really want to come through a crisis with flying colors, practice your crisis communications plan.

Question: What could utility communicators do today to be ready to respond to the next crisis?

Answer: Five things come to mind:

  • Develop a crisis communications plan if you don’t have one.
  • If you have a plan that’s been sitting on a shelf, take it out and update it. Who will say what to which audience, how, and when.
  • That plan should identify your crisis communications team, so that all the communicators know what to do when a crisis hits. Identify backups because when a crisis hits, one member of your team will be on vacation in Brazil and unreachable. Make sure you have current cell numbers and social media passwords.
  • Develop crisis-response messages that are approved by the CEO, HR, Legal and other leadership team members.
  • Create a bank of goodwill by communicating regularly with your most important stakeholders when there is no crisis, so they understand what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.

Photo credits: iStock unless otherwise noted







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