Utilities spring into action as blackout casts media light upon them

AKRON, OH: Electric utilities from New York to Michigan swung into crisis comms mode when the lights went out August 14, with PR staffers working around the clock through the weekend as power was restored.

AKRON, OH: Electric utilities from New York to Michigan swung into crisis comms mode when the lights went out August 14, with PR staffers working around the clock through the weekend as power was restored.

First Energy Corp., the Akron, OH-based utility that some had pointed to as the cause of the massive blackout, went on the PR offensive to answer those charges. It quickly issued a statement saying problems in the Eastern power grid "were detected as early as noon on Thursday on the broad region, not just within our system."

Media calls were referred to industry groups such as the North American Electric Reliability Council and others who were saying it would be some time before a cause could be

pinpointed.

"We needed to get our story out there." said Mark Durbin, a PR representative at First Energy. Our folks said, 'Look, there was a lot going on at the time. For us to take out the en-tire Eastern seaboard, no way,'"

At New York's Con Edison, Michael Clendenin, media relations director, had to walk down 19 stories in the utility's Union Square headquarters to conduct outdoor press conferences. ConEd kept in close touch with public officials from the mayor to the governor, knowing they would be talking to the press about the status of ConEd's system, Clendenin explained.

At DTE Energy in Detroit, however, chairman and CEO Tony Earley decided he would become the company's public face during the blackout. He conducted seven press conferences from Thursday through Saturday.

"This is a person who fully understands his leadership role," said Lorie Kessler, manager of public information and media relations with DTE.

Earley's efforts may have helped DTE's image. Both major Detroit daily newspapers ran favorable stories last week spotlighting Earley and the role he played during the crisis. The Detroit News headlined its piece: "DTE's Earley proves blackout's bright spot."

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