BC Hydro: Lessons learned from blackout

Susan Danard, manager of issues management and media relations at BC Hydro, spoke with PRWeek about what BC Hydro did right, where it faltered and how it plans to move forward.

When Susan Danard arrived at BC Hydro's corporate offices the morning of Monday July 14th, the entire building was without power. Danard, manager of issues management and media relations at BC Hydro, soon learned the power outage caused by an underground fire had not only affected BC Hydro, but 20% of Vancouver's downtown core (power would be resorted to most three days later). She quickly assembled a communications team of 20—including from media relations, corporate affairs, employee communications, and digital communications.
After a week of reflection, Danard spoke with PRWeek about what BC Hydro did right, where it faltered and how it plans to move forward.  

What it did right
“What really saved us was that we have a corporate emergency centre—complete with a media centre—which we can activate in situations like this,” said Danard. It proved especially important that the emergency centre is located in BC Hydro's office in a suburb of Vancouver, since it was not affected by the outage.

While key media people and spokespeople, armed with cell phones and Blackberrys, remained downtown, “we had people in the ‘burbs set up with computers, monitoring the news and supplying us with information. They had pretty good facilities, so they could also be in direct contact with customers and employees.” By having a centralized command centre, operations crew managing and directing the field work could directly relay information to the media centre. “We wanted to tightly control what it is we were going to say, and be sure we were all going to say the same things,” said Danard. “You get that by all being in the same place.”

How BC Hydro told its story
“The media was one of the most effective ways for us to actually get information to customers: what happened and why it was taking so long, because that was a really important story for us to tell,” said Danard. On Tuesday, that included setting up for media a technical briefing with the VP of field operations, who through news segments on TV showed “viewers what was happening underground, and why it was so complex to repair [14 circuits had been damaged by the fire]. The visuals helped us to keep some public sympathy, because I won't deny that there are some businesses that are quite upset with us, and understandably so. So even though they were unhappy, at least they understood.”

What BC Hydro would like to re-do
Danard said her only “regret” was failing to issue a press release sooner. BC Hydro crew were unable to get into the manhole tunnel the day of the fire, because firefighters said it was too dangerous. “It was challenging for us because it meant it wasn't until in the evening that we had a proper assessment of the situation,” said Danard. She said while they were quick to respond to media calls, they didn't get a news release out until after the evening news hour. “We should have acknowledged that, ‘We don't know what's happening, we're looking into, we're at the scene and the firefighters are advising us to do X and X and X'—in other words, don't wait to long to give out information,” said Danard. “The worse thing to do is seeming to be silent.”

How BC Hydro plans to move forward
BC Hydro is now conducting a full review (which will include third-party input) of not just the problem and repair, but how they handled the communications, said Danard. “We're all being asked to come up with a list of things that we did well and things that we didn't,” she said. That list even includes such seemingly small details as items the communication team wished it had on-hand during the crisis, but didn't; for instance, there weren't enough Blackberry phone chargers, for those working out of their cars downtown. Also problematic: In the emergency centre, the angled floor plugs made it impossible for staff to plug in their Blackberry chargers. With the 2010 Olympic Games approaching, Danard said the crisis will allow BC Hydro to strengthen its emergency response plan.

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