Guest Blog: How NOT to Communicate with Utility Customers During Outages

By John Egan

Lafayette, Colo., September 5, 2011 — “A live electric wire just fell on a bus full of senior citizens—what do you do?”

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

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

Four days after Hurricane Irene dissipated, an estimated one million homes and businesses in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey were still without power.

One New York political official told the Times that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has “been frustrated by the difficulty they have encountered in getting some utilities to communicate.” Elected officials were “dragging utility executives before the television cameras to answer questions.”

“For many of those without power,” continued the Times article, “the main complaint was a lack of solid information about how long their plight would last. Some said they would rather hear that the electricity would be off for a week than to be left wondering.”

And what did one utility executive say when the bright lights of the news media were shining on him?

Jeff Butler, the president of Connecticut Light & Power, said the utility would have to recoup the costs of restoration from its customers, estimated at $75 million.

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

If I were providing outage communications consulting to CLP, I would have recommended a very different road – verbally as well as non-verbally.

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. He’d talk about safety. He would be photographed in a work shirt and jeans, interacting with customers, staying calm but giving them a chance to vent.

He would get his hands dirty handing out water, ice or coffee at local emergency stations. He’d be put in a frame next to a tree-trimming crew, or near a bucket truck, meeting with employees at the site, touring the damage, gesturing, nodding, and looking intensely interested. Looking engaged. I assume he is substantively engaged in the power restoration effort. But since perception is reality, we’d make sure he was acting in ways that would show he was engaged and empathetic.

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 will be back on. Then he would step away from the microphones.

If pressed by reporters, as we assume 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.”

Then he’d provide emergency service officials with two checks—one from CL&P, the other from his personal bank account — to help pay for the costs associated with the water, ice and coffee distribution.

After that, he’d go back into the field, to continue fighting for control of the story. Because today’s news cycle never ends. The morning news story becomes the raw material for bloggers and talk-radio hosts in the afternoon and evening. And tomorrow, the cycle begins again. Unless it starts sooner.

John Egan, a former utility-company spokesman and energy-industry reporter, is founder and president of Egan Energy Communications (www.EganEnergy.com), a utility-industry communications consulting firm based in Lafayette, Colorado.