Energy companies buoy outreach amid outages

ROSEMEAD, CA, AND QUEENS, NY: Record temperatures and power outages on both coasts have forced energy companies to head off criticism from disgruntled customers while communicating to the press about how to remedy power failures.

ROSEMEAD, CA, AND QUEENS, NY: Record temperatures and power outages on both coasts have forced energy companies to head off criticism from disgruntled customers while communicating to the press about how to remedy power failures.

The first crisis, in the borough of Queens, began on July 19 when a reported 100,000 Con Edison customers went without power, some for more than a week. Newspaper editorials were harshly critical of CEO Kevin Burke and residents called for his job.

Con Edison said it worked to quell public anger and get the word out about its progress. Michael Clendenin, Con Edison's director of media relations, said the company has a "multifaceted communications plan" for such incidents. Rubenstein Associates supported the company during the crisis.

"We focus a lot on radio" to reach affected customers, he said. "It's a lot of grassroots; a lot of street work."

Meanwhile on the West Coast, Gil Alexander, communication project manager for Southern California Edison (SCE), said it also relied heavily on radio, and that media relationships were critical so that SCE reps can - if necessary - "pick up the phone and be put on the air live, even before they know why we're calling."

In California, where temperatures soared to more than 110 degrees and 1.5 million of the 35 million-plus residents have been sporadically without power, government and utilities have promoted conservation.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which regulates privately owned utilities, ramped up communications around its Flex Your Power (FYP) campaign.

"When we near peak power days, FYP becomes Flex Your Power Now!, and messages on conservation start running in newspapers, and on TV and radio," said Terrie Prosper, PUC press secretary, in an e-mail. She added that the PUC also works with the California Energy Commission (CEC) to coordinate messages of conservation with the media.

She added that the PUC and ISO, a nonprofit corporation running the majority of California's high-voltage wholesale power grids, have been briefing reporters daily and exhorting consumers to avoid wasting electricity, blasting air conditioners, and using major appliances during peak hours with PSAs on television, radio, and billboards.

Alexander said SCE is offering utility discounts to consumers and businesses that reduce power during peak hours. But Craig Sheehy, director of property management for Thomas Properties Group, said that by doing so business owners would lose more in productivity per square feet than they would gain from utility perks, making the incentive inefficient.

"The smart tenant just isn't going to do it," Sheehy said.

Meanwhile, the New York media have criticized New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's support of Con Edison. A headline in the New York Press read, "Bloomberg and Con Ed versus Everybody." The company said Bloomberg's vote of confidence was nonetheless a significant boost during the height of public outrage.

"The administration knows... as much about the status of our system as we do," Clendenin said. "That's really a testament to the fact that we've been communicating openly with them."

By Tuesday, when power had been mostly restored, Burke sat down for a 70-minute conversation with the New York Daily News' editorial board, to explain Con Ed's position. Still, Clendenin acknowledged that there will be "a lot of work" ahead for Burke.

"We built up a lot of public trust [post-9/11]," he said. "Now we have to work to regain it - and we will."

At press time, while Queens had largely returned to normal, California still faced more potential blackouts, but the heatwave is easing and "that's having a positive affect on our customers," said Alexander, last Thursday. He added that only 700 customers were without power.

Story compiled by Keith O'Brien.

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