PR TECHNIQUE: COMMUNITY RELATIONS - Keeping the customer out of thedark. California blackouts are averaging 20 hours per week. Similaroutages are expected in the coming weeks in New York, Texas and Florida

It is every American's God-given right to take electricity for

granted - or so we seem to think. We flick a switch, the light goes on.

We open the fridge, the Evian is cold. That's simply the way it has

worked for decades, and most of us haven't really had to think about how

- or if - it will happen.

But Americans are quickly learning (especially Californians) that

electricity shouldn't be taken for granted. Botched attempts at industry

deregulation and unprecedented demand for power have left the country

thinking about energy - and energy providers - with a doggedly critical


California has been experiencing "rolling blackouts" throughout this

year and other states are expected to follow soon. Public information

officers at utility companies - the buffers between the angry public and

the service provider unable to provide much service - are wading into

uncharted waters these days.

PR practitioners at California energy companies are trying to come up

with ways to notify customers about approaching power outages before

they happen, but even the experts aren't quiet sure about the best

method to accomplish it.

California-ISO (Cal-ISO), a non-profit company formed in 1998 when

California opened its energy markets to competition, has been forced to

man the frontier.

It is responsible for managing the flow of electricity along power lines

throughout the state, ensuring that energy demand doesn't exceed what

"the grid" can provide. "We're the air traffic controllers of

electricity," explains PIO Greg Fishman.

The state has begun to insist that Cal-ISO provide warnings of impending

blackouts and extended electrical "forecasts." But how, exactly, is this

done? Experts agree that no blueprint exists for this massive

undertaking in community relations. "We are still in the process of

developing how this is going to be implemented," Fishman concedes.

"They want 48-hour, 24-hour and then one-hour notices," says


The most likely method of accomplishing this, he believes, will be to

disseminate the information through the news media. "We're going to put

out the 24- and 48-hour notices in a daily advisory to the media and let

them deal with it as they see fit," he says. He endorses this method

because the media is particularly willing to cover the story.

Ray Granado, spokesperson for the Texas Utility Company, which hasn't

experienced a problem yet but is wary of the coming months, agrees. His

company has its own wire service set up to alert the media should the

power supply run low, subsequently forcing Texans to ease up on


"The media is great at working under an emergency situation," he


He warns, however, not to simply notify and forget. "After the initial

notification, they'll probably follow up and start doing stories. They

call us for interviews, and sometimes they'll want someone from the

company to go out to the site where there's a problem. We do as much as

is humanly possible because they're helping us out, and we want to help

them out."

Cal-ISO will also use its Web site to post forecasts and is considering

"pushing" information to citizens who sign up to receive it. One

concern, however, is releasing too much information, thereby creating a

crisis atmosphere when none exists. "If people want to get information

via e-mail or pager or some sort of automatic phone call, we may do

that, but we run the risk of burying people with information that isn't

usable on a daily basis, and potentially crying wolf," Fishman says.

"When a day or hour or block of hours is looking more critical, we

consider pushing information to allow people to take steps to power down

computers or shut down processes in an orderly fashion."

One thing is for certain though: Cal-ISO will be handling this situation

itself. Fishman thinks PR firms, plenty of which have been calling to

offer their services, are simply unnecessary and probably couldn't keep

up with the pace anyway. "Just based on all the media coverage we've

gotten, vendors have been coming out of the woodwork. But the flow of

information here is so dynamic that getting a third party involved would

be difficult. Our operations people are literally making decisions every

10 minutes whether there will be enough power in a given day."

Surprisingly, Cal-ISO has not increased its PR staff and does not plan

to. There are only four members of his staff, but Fishman says they can

"borrow" others from the company on days when they are "thrown into the

media fray."

One other important thing to remember when dealing with blackouts is to

stress conservation. Let customers know that they can affect the

duration and severity of supply problems by lowering their own demand.

But be careful to avoid suggesting that they are responsible for the

disruption in service.

"You want to begin encouraging customers to understand the benefits of

beginning to do some conservation efforts on their own," says Bill

Swank, duty officer at Florida Power and Light and 25-year veteran of

the energy industry. "Get out there and have public meetings to get

together and understand the impact and need for conservation."

Heightened awareness of the California crisis resulted in an 11% drop in

energy use in the state during May. Showing what can be achieved with a

high-profile campaign combined with other industry factors, this led

Governor Gray Davis to proclaim his state had "turned a corner."

Nonetheless, utilities across the country are preparing to deal with the

worst - whether it comes to pass or not.


1 Do use the media and encourage conservation

2 Do accommodate follow-ups - have spokespeople prepared to go on camera

3 Do give as much notice as possible when blackouts are coming

1 Don't cry wolf - only give out information when there is information

to give

2 Don't notify the media and forget about it - follow up

3 Don't insinuate the customer is at fault

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