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Don’t leave your customers in the dark: Outage communication best practices

Customers think about their utility more when the power is off than when it is on. When the lights go out, they’re on their phones, scrambling to know what’s happening. In this narrow window of time, utilities have the best chance to impress or frustrate their customers.

Communications are put to the ultimate test when outages occur. That’s why planning is critical.

Alert customers right away

When there’s an outage, you must inform customers right away — through your website, social media, and phone recordings — even before sending out a press release to local media.

Like many of its public power peers, Huntsville Utilities’ public relations department is on call 24 hours a day. If an outage occurs, someone is always ready to step into action. After being alerted of a major outage, the PR person writes a news release based on information received from dispatch. He or she posts the information to Facebook and Twitter and sends the news release to local media. All these steps are typically completed in less than five minutes.

Even though the Guam Power Authority’s communication department is a one-person show, the utility also communicates quickly during outages, posting the latest information to social media first. When an outage is reported, the utility writes a news release and uses that information to create a Facebook post and an email notification.

During outages, utilities should provide frequent updates through social media and the web, even if it’s just to say crews are still working on the issue. Communicate what you know and don’t know, what you’re doing to resolve the issue, and how you’re finding information — be honest and transparent.

Tell the story, or the story becomes you

There are many unknowns during an outage, but you, as the utility, have access to more information than anyone else. Be sure to respond to media inquiries — via phone and email — so you’re not perceived as unresponsive. Have a statement ready to inform the media on what is known about the outage and the actions you’re taking to solve the problem.

“Relying on the media to tell the story is a major mistake utilities make,” according to Bruce Hennes, managing partner of Hennes Communications, a firm that specializes in crisis management. “If customers have information directly from the utility, they may not believe what they see or hear in the media, especially if the media gets it wrong,” Hennes said.

To help keep the media informed, Hennes said having a Twitter account is the “name of the game,” because that’s where many reporters find information. Tweets need to be short, and should drive readers to the utility’s website or Facebook page where they can view more detailed information.

“Social media is a quick medium to get all the information out,” echoed Artemio Perez, communications manager for Guam Power Authority. “It also helps you reach a lot of news bureaus, because even reporters who are not at the station can get the news using their mobile devices.”

Embrace the unknown

A utility may be tempted to wait until it has all the facts so it can avoid distributing information that could change or keep people from panicking about the situation.

“That’s the old way of thinking. Now people go right to social media, even during a power outage, and they are going to start getting answers — but those answers are likely to come from unofficial sources and could include misinformation,” Hennes said. “If utilities aren’t out there with information first, they are behind.”

If a utility is unsure of when the outage will be resolved and doesn’t want to promise something it can’t deliver, Hennes suggests stating the information is “preliminary” or telling customers about the worst-case scenario only.

“Telling people the worst-case scenario allows the utility to position the situation as being resolved better than expected,” Hennes said. “It’s better to tell customers the worst case than to say nothing or let too much time go by between communications.”

Huntsville Utilities had to put these practices to use in 2011, when a major storm outbreak across the southeastern United States knocked out power to the utility’s entire system for the first time in its history — resulting in a total outage for the utility’s 180,000 customers.

“Generally, we don’t give restoration estimates, but in a big event like this, we told customers it would be days before power was back up,” said Joe Gehrdes, director of communications and public relations for Huntsville Utilities. “We reached substantial restoration four days later.”

After the storm hit, Huntsville held hourly news conferences with its leadership and city leadership to give customers status updates. It used social media to frequently communicate with customers as well.

“That was when the company recognized the value of using social media to communicate information, to the minute, to customers who weren’t tapped into the news media,” Gehrdes said.

Huntsville has spread this principle across its overall social media use. The utility focuses on sending personal responses to posts and private messages, and it aims to respond to all inquiries within five minutes — no matter what time of day.

“We get a lot of customer complaints on social media, and we’re going to be responsive to customer concerns,” Gehrdes said. “A lot of utilities are on social media but not giving it the amount of attention they should.”

Loop in everyone impacted

In the event of a major outage, utilities should have a plan in place to communicate to:

  • Employees and their families
  • Suppliers and vendors
  • Board of directors
  • Mayor and city council members
  • People who live within a one-mile radius of the plant
  • Emergency responders

This is something Guam Power Authority knows all too well. The island’s location in the Pacific leaves it susceptible to typhoons, which can cause a total, island wide blackout. Though a storm of that magnitude has not hit in more than a decade, Guam Power Authority is the only utility on the island, so it must be prepared to act quickly when a storm is in the forecast.

In the event of a major outage or blackout, Guam Power Authority uses social media, particularly Facebook, to alert its 50,000 customers, including a U.S. Navy base, to find the latest detailed information on its website. The utility also alerts hospitals and the highway section of the local department of public works, to patrol intersections without functioning traffic lights, as well as major hotels and restaurants — facilities that may not have backup generation to continue elevator operation. In addition, the utility alerts public safety agencies, such as the fire and police departments, and the Guam Waterworks Authority, which can implement its emergency water pump system.

“Communicating with those stakeholders is key to making sure the recovery is ongoing and that basic services won’t be unavailable for long,” Perez said.

Utilities should make sure their customer service phone lines are fully staffed and recordings are updated with current information — and be ready to check voicemails and respond quickly to customer concerns.

“Be certain any hold recordings have regularly updated information for customers, so they aren’t frustrated when waiting to speak to a human,” Hennes said. “The worst thing for old-school customers is when they call a utility and get a busy signal.”

It pays to plan

The key to communicating quickly with all community stakeholders is to have a plan in place well before disaster strikes.

“The time to figure out how to communicate and on what platform to communicate is not during a major outage,” Hennes said.

A crisis communication plan should identify who is on the crisis response team, what platforms should be used to communicate, what messages will be communicated, and how frequently messages will be distributed on all platforms.

Having a crisis plan in place can also help utilities look for any gaps in internal infrastructure needed to help customers find information quickly.

Having a responsive website that is easy for customers to navigate on a phone or mobile device is crucial, as customers will largely use these devices to look for information when the power is out. Utilities may also want to consider creating an outage map feature that can be embedded on the website and shared on a variety of platforms.

Once the systems are in place, the utility should inform various stakeholders — in normal times — where to go for information during outages. The information could be shared via the utility’s website, social media, trucks and equipment, and even bill stuffers.

“The beauty of having a plan like this in place is, if something happens in the middle of the night or on a weekend, even the lowest ranking person on the response team can have the authority to establish that there is a problem and to start communicating about that problem right away,” Hennes said.

No utility is exempt from the possibility of an outage. By having a clear system in place for these situations and understanding the exact processes, utilities can minimize damage to their reputation and keep customers as happy as possible.

Your be-ready buddy

The American Public Power Association’s Storm Communications Guide includes tips on how to create and execute communications before, during, and after a storm-related outage. The guide includes a list of do’s and don’ts, sample press releases, sample social media posts, and checklists.

Member utilities can also find strategies for sharing outage information in the Public Power Mutual Aid Playbook. The American Public Power Association features a collection of tools member utilities can use to help customers understand what steps the utility is taking to prepare for a storm and how customers can stay safe during storm-related outages.

Is your public power utility part of the Mutual Aid Working Group? Email [email protected] to learn more and ask how you can get involved in advancing public power’s disaster management best practices.

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