In the months following last July's power outages in Queens, Con Edison received some criticism for spending more than $500,000 on what was called an ad campaign. One local official said the ads "lacked substance" and were "a total waste of money."
From the standpoint of the most effective way to deliver our message to customers, we couldn't disagree more. In fact, the Queens Ledger, one of the newspapers in which we placed our informational messages, noted in an editorial "how the lack of spending marketing dollars is a mistake" when it comes to letting people in the community know about local issues that affect their daily lives.
Con Edison has spent $90 million on repairs and upgrades to the electrical distribution system that serves northwest Queens and has paid $14 million in claims to 39,000 residents and business owners who suffered outage-related losses. We're the only utility in the state that reimburses its customers for food spoilage or the loss of perishable merchandise.
Our communications initiative immediately following the power outages was part of an extensive effort to provide information about how customers could file claims and to encourage them to report problems to us. We also alerted the community about the establishment of a recovery task force deploying hundreds of field crews and the opening of three neighborhood recovery centers staffed by company representatives during the restoration work. Hardly a waste of money.
We also ran a letter from our chairman expressing his deep regret for the painful ordeal the disruptions caused customers and thanking them for their patience and support of Con Ed employees who labored around the clock to make repairs. Appropriately, he also wanted to let people know that our performance fell short of the standards of service customers expect and deserve, as well as the standards we set for ourselves.
We are telling our customers that we are learning from this incident. We've added hundreds of customer service phone lines, but we'll no longer rely solely on customer calls to assess an outage's scope. We are enhancing our computerized customer data systems and will mobilize street survey teams earlier during an emergency.
In addition to our newspaper ads, we ran radio spots advising customers on how to file claims and posted claims information and service updates on the company's Web site. We feel, however, that advertising in the local papers serving the affected communities was the best way to reach the people who needed the information. And we believe it was money well spent.
Clearly, we know the difference between image advertising and informational messaging. Our ON IT branding campaign has been in place for a number of years now. For a critic to point to a phone-kiosk ad that is part of the company's ongoing branding effort - a poster that was placed long after the outages occurred - was misleading and disingenuous.
All of us at Con Edison regret the hardship we caused our customers in northwest Queens last summer. We are working to improve communications with our customers and to restore their trust in us. If we fail in our responsibility to provide the most reliable service possible, we will own up to it and reach out to them through every media tool available.
Michael Clendenin is director of media relations at Con Edison.