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
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
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
2 Don't notify the media and forget about it - follow up
3 Don't insinuate the customer is at fault