Sandy shows utilities importance of social in crisis communications

The value of social media in crisis communications was reinforced in the past two weeks to organizations on the front lines of Hurricane Sandy.

The value of social media in crisis communications was reinforced in the past two weeks to organizations on the front lines of Hurricane Sandy, many of which saw the number of their Facebook fans and Twitter followers increase by the thousands.

The reason: many consumers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut relied on mobile and tablet devices to receive important information during the Hurricane and its aftermath.

Before Sandy approached the East Coast, Con Edison had about 1,000 Twitter followers; now the utility company has more than 22,000. New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses, tunnels, and bridges, nearly tripled its audience on Twitter from 26,000 to more than 75,000 in the days after the storm.

“The lesson so far is that putting out a lot of information as soon as you get it and being accessible really pays off,” says Adam Lisberg, director of external communications at the MTA. “By being good, it helps you look good as a consequence.”

In addition to providing updates on train service, the MTA also posted images to help frustrated commuters understand the extent of the damage and what the organization was doing.

“The L train in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn was one of the last to be restored, and residents and representatives of the neighborhood were complaining, ‘Where's our L train?'” says Lisberg.

Since it was not safe to bring the media into the tunnels, “we sent our [track-certified] photographer and video guy down into the tube to come back with images showing the extent of the damage, how many crews were working on it, and the ‘pump trains' still pumping water out,” he says. “Through every available channel, we explained where we were with the situation, what we're doing, what we've seen – and then said, ‘Here is proof that we're working as hard as we can.'

“I think that went a long way to establishing our credibility,” Lisberg adds.

Con Edison, about 98,000 of whose customers lost electrical power, has been under fire for prolonged outages caused by Sandy, including from a column on Time's website.

On Thursday, Con Edison chairman and CEO Kevin Burke met the press at a disaster recovery center opened by FEMA, where he apologized for the delay that has left thousands without power for more than a week.

Allan Drury, Con Edison's public affairs manager, tells PRWeek, “We've tried to be very clear in the dozens of interviews we've done daily and in dealing with customer inquiries that we understand the frustration. We've let them know that we've pulled every resource imaginable from across the US, with [contracted] crews coming from as far west as California, to get service restored.

“After an event like this, we have a process called ‘lessons learned' where a lot of conversations take place about what can be done differently and how we can improve,” he adds. “We will do that after the [full] restoration.”

In addition to playing an important role in community outreach, social has also helped power companies from an employee-relations standpoint, says Theresa Gilbert, media relations specialist and social media coordinator of Connecticut Light & Power. More than 850,000 of its customers lost power during the storm.

“We anticipated a lot of customers would follow us on social media,” she explains, “but in a major event like this, when we're calling on thousands of workers from across the country, we also needed to show the magnitude of what was being done.”

A dedicated communications team of about a dozen staffers posted daily progress reports and safety messages on Twitter and Facebook, where employees also responded to customer concerns. In addition, CL&P had a production team shoot video of clean-up efforts and post the footage on its YouTube channel. Reporters were also invited behind the scenes of its restoration efforts.

“Family members of our crew were able to see what their loved ones were doing and post messages like, ‘I can see my husband was really needed in Connecticut, you guys definitely needed help,'” notes Gilbert. “We were able to create a sense of community that I do not think we'd have seen without social media.”

CL&P also fostered a sense of community by posting content on Facebook, including a photograph of a utility crew with a young boy who had dropped by a staging area to give a team Halloween candy. The post generated more than 800 likes “and proved very morale-building for our employees,” says Gilbert.

Some brands helped consumers during the crisis, while companies such as the Gap and American Apparel were criticized for what looked like crass attempts to profit from a natural disaster.

Duracell, which deployed its “Rapid Responder” truck to hard-hit areas in New York and New Jersey to help residents charge phones and computers and get Internet access, was praised for its efforts.

The company made the truck's schedule and location public on Facebook and Twitter, and it worked with agency Citizen Paine on media outreach, says Will Sakdinan, global communications associate director for Procter & Gamble-owned Duracell.

“Traditional PR drives our brand message to the broader media, which helps our stakeholders, including those in government, see the programs that we create,” he explains. “Plus, for those people not directly affected on the West Coast or Midwest, it is still a way for us to tell them what we're doing as a brand.”

Sakdinan adds that even though some consumers called the Rapid Responder program “self-serving” on social media, as long as the program is communicated genuinely, “your brand fans will come to your defense. We had a lot of posts from people saying, ‘I really appreciate you getting involved.'”

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