Mid-Atlantic utilities endure PR firestorm following Hurricane Isabel

WASHINGTON: Utilities throughout the mid-Atlantic reacted to calls for investigations and a tide of public criticism last week as they struggled to turn the power back on after Hurricane Isabel.

WASHINGTON: Utilities throughout the mid-Atlantic reacted to calls for investigations and a tide of public criticism last week as they struggled to turn the power back on after Hurricane Isabel.

As repair crews spread out across the region, PR professionals from the various utilities aggressively engaged the media. Most expressed regret at the slow return to normalcy, but others were eager to dismiss the criticism altogether.

"There are always calls for investigations after a storm," said Robert Dobkin, senior spokesman for DC-based utility PEPCO. "Customers give you slack for two days and then it's war as far as they're concerned. They put heat on the politicians, and they have to react."

Nonetheless, Dobkin brought in local independent shop Stanton Communications immediately following the storm to help out with strategy and media relations.

Detractors loudly criticized many of the utilities for being slow to make repairs and for failing to better manage customer's expectations.

"If they had reached out a little more before the storm to customers and political leaders and said, 'A lot of people are going to be without power for a long time,' it seems to me they could have lessened the impact on their reputation," said SVP Laura Catalano, co-chair of Fleishman-Hillard's energy and environment group.

Tim Brown, a spokesman for Delaware-based power generation company Conectiv, conceded that there were lessons to be learned.

"It's important to have a crisis plan, but it's also important to be adaptable based on the events as they're developing," he said.

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