No one thinks much about their local utility company ... until the lights go out, the gas lines burst, or a nuclear reactor fails.
Utility companies have traditionally responded to such crises by sticking to scripted press releases. But more and more utility companies are moving away from highly-controlled, one-way crisis communication. Instead, they're using social media to communicate in more modern, effective, and personal ways during crises.
Here are some of their stories.
Nashville Electric Service — Build a Community of Support
Crisis: 2010 Tennessee Floods (April 30-May 7, 2010). 19 inches of rain in some areas caused widespread flooding and 21 deaths. Flooding caused outages for at least three days in downtown Nashville, leaving 42,000 residents without power.
Response: Unable to reach the customer service phone line, customers looked to Twitter for news on restoration efforts. NES put their social media plan into effect, originally created in 2009. The Social Media Manager and PR teams worked to answer each individual tweet, and continued working for two weeks to be sure all questions were answered.
Over the years, NES had built up a community of support through social media. Negative or critical comments left on Twitter were met with supportive comments from other users. NES further developed their social media calendar in 2010 to provide ongoing communication. (More Info)
Alabama Power — Crowdsource Your Message
Crisis: Tornado Super-Outbreak (April 27-28, 2011) Widespread thunderstorms and tornadoes killed 249 people and caused 650,000 outages.
Response: The spokesman for Alabama Power took to Twitter to relay the most up-to-date information. Customers and major news outlets took to Twitter for the latest information, even citing it in their reports: “Approximately 11,300 customers in the metropolitan Birmingham area were without power, as well as 2,300 in Clanton and another 1,500 in Prattville as of noon, Alabama Power said on Twitter,” the Christian Post reported.
As the utility began the arduous task of restoring service, some customers began to take to social media to complain about the apparent lack of progress. Alabama Power sent out a tweet asking their community to (safely) take photos of working crews and share them. Some of the dozens of photos showed metal transmission towers twisted in knots; others simply showed the linemen working diligently to restore power. By crowdsourcing the message, Alabama Power was able to show the severity and enormity of damage and demonstrate that they were working with their customers.
Photo: Jeff Roberts, The Birmingham News
Commonwealth Edison — Do What’s Right For The Customer
Crisis: 2011 Summer Storms (June-July 2011). Over 4 weeks, two severe weather systems knocked out power to 400,00 and 852,000 customers.
Response: Normally, outage reports are only taken through ComEd's outage hotline, but as phone systems were stressed and customers took to Twitter, ComEd responded by developing a new Twitter-friendly processes for accepting outage reports. Staff members were trained on how to transfer users’ information for the most seamless process possible, and employees worked around the clock to settle customers’ concerns.
Dominion Virginia Power — Ease Customers' Minds
Crisis: 5.8 Magnitude Virginia Earthquake (August 23, 2011 at 1:51 PM). Reactor sensors at Dominion’s North Anna Nuclear Generating Station, 10 miles northeast of the epicenter, detected a slight power reduction and automatically shut down the two nuclear reactors.
Response: In the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, Dominion needed to act quickly. They took to social media within minutes and helped to quell concerns about their reactors. The public and media were aware that the situation was being evaluated and responded to accordingly.
(Screenshot via TrueBlueNaturalGas)
Not too long ago, customers flipped on their battery-powered radios and waited for outage updates, but since social media, utility companies are forced to contend with communicating directly with the public. Those utilities that have welcomed it have discovered new channels for increasing customer goodwill, and those who have opposed it have had to face its consequences.