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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When Disaster Strikes


By now everyone with access to a news media outlet or a social media platform is well aware of the devastating storm that recently wreaked havoc across the country, especially on the east coast. And if you’re not learning about the storm second hand, then you’re probably one of the more than a million people that personally felt the storm’s wrath (myself included).Today, there are an alarming number of people and businesses still without power.

Whenever a natural disaster such as this occurs and it negatively impacts people’s lives on a large scale, the target of the most public ire is usually the local utility company, followed by the local government. Most of the people’s angst and anger can be directly attributed to the loss of electricity that typically follows a storm of this magnitude. Without power, food spoils, temperatures rise or fall, entertainment is extinguished, business is lost, and everyday life-functions that we normally take for granted come to a screeching halt.

In the area where I live and work – the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) – the two dominate energy providers are PEPCO and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE).Because I live within BGE’s coverage area and my home was without power for roughly 24 hours, I’ll just focus on their handling of storm’s aftermath…from a public relations standpoint.

Nobody likes a bad storm, especially when it involves the loss of electricity. But what people hate even more than the storm is the company responsible for returning life back to normal when that storm is over. With a total of 1.24 million customers in the DMV and a large portion of them without power, BGE faced a daunting challenge of restoring everyone’s electricity without sustaining a crushing blow to consumer confidence or its public image (think BP Gulf oil spill).

While the storm itself wasn’t BGE’s doing (or any other energy company for that matter), it was perceived as their fault that people had to go days without power. And with 100 degree temperature days being the norm, one can understand if people are a little pissed. No A/C on a very hot day is more than the inconvenience of not being able to watch the latest installment of HBO’s True Blood, it can mean the difference between life and death.

So how did BGE do in terms of their PR and crisis communications efforts? In my opinion, they did outstanding. I give them a grade of an “A minus.” I watched them closely to see how they would handle this delicate situation of communicating with a fragmented audience residing in a 3.0 world.

Measuring the return on a PR initiative can be, at times, subjective, but how you respond and communicate during a crisis situation is pretty straightforward – you either did a good job or a bad job. Fail at crisis communications as a company and it can cost you your business, or at minimum brand equity. People have a tendency to remember how badly an organization handles a crisis (think Hurricane Katrina and Waco).

Because of how I receive a large portion of information these days, I decided to see what BGE was up to via Twitter. In checking their Twitter feed, I saw not only good information about what was happening and what they were currently doing to alleviate the problem, but I also saw that they were engaging with, in some cases, irate customers via Twitter. As such, I decided to tweet them with my observations (FYI, they didn’t directly respond back to me).

Overall, I liked BGE’s messaging and use of Twitter, especially the additions of the images via their Flickr account. But while I thought it was beneficial to show the visuals of the damage that was done so that people could grasp the scope of the problem and understand why they had no electricity, I thought it would be even better to incorporate visuals of the BGE technicians working tireless to fix the problems. I’d like to think that my suggestion was heeded, because on July 1st, the photos on Flickr switched from disaster porn to nothing but images of BGE workers solving the problems.

In addition to what was happening on Twitter, BGE implemented a full court social media press, also communicating and responding via Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Most of the relevant social media touch points were covered (sorry Google +). BGE also made excellent use of its website’s homepage. For what they were doing in the digital space, in light of the circumstances, I gave them high marks. It just goes to show that if you don’t have a social media crisis plan, you need to develop one immediately.

I also thought that BGE did a solid job on the traditional media relations component of their crisis communications. Whether it was with TV, radio or print media outlets BGE consistently got the message out as to what they were doing to solve the problem or provide solutions. They even drafted and placed that magical position missive known as the Op-Ed (it ran in both the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal). And even the company’s online media center stayed current with the latest news releases and company blog posts.

As a PR Pro, watching the BGE Comm Team at work was somewhat exciting, taking me back to my crisis communications days at the Maryland Transit Administration. While the circumstances surrounding why they had to test the readiness of their communications apparatus in the first place was due to an unfortunate nature, and by no means does this glowing review of their PR efforts mean that they’ve fixed all the power problems, it was refreshing to see a company execute a crisis communication effort in an effective manner.

Oh by the way, I gave BGE an A minus for the response rates or in some minor cases a lack of a response via social media, and for what appears to be non sanctioned spokes people going on camera and/or talking to the media.

So how does your company/organization’s crisis communication plan stack up?

1 comment:

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