National Grid expands work with MSL for Sandy reaction

NEW YORK: MSLGroup has expanded its work with utility company National Grid to help it with its communications response in New York following Hurricane Sandy.

NEW YORK: MSLGroup has expanded its work with utility company National Grid to help it with its communications response in New York following Hurricane Sandy.

National Grid has worked with Schwartz MSL Boston since 2011, but the agency has assisted the company's communications efforts on Long Island after the storm, said Fred Kuebler, director of US media relations for National Grid.

The electricity and gas company also employs local agencies in each of its US markets, including Advocacy Solutions in Rhode Island, Pierce Communications in Albany, NY, Pinckney Hugo Group in Syracuse, NY, and E3 Communications in Buffalo, NY.

More than 600,000 National Grid customers on Long Island were without power as of Wednesday afternoon, Kuebler said. In Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, more than 11,000 customers were without gas. Power had already been restored to upstate New York, Massachusetts customers would receive electricity by midnight Friday, and Rhode Island power outages would be restored by Friday, Kuebler said.

Before, during, and after the storm, National Grid conducted extensive efforts on social media to reach out to customers, Kuebler said. Through Facebook and Twitter, the company gave customers advice such as using battery-operated radios, storing extra ice in freezers, and tips on generator safety. National Grid also issued a "steady flow" of press releases to keep people up to date, he added.

The company's group of community liaisons have played a significant role in communicating with customers, Kuebler said. The group of National Grid employees is stationed throughout emergency operation centers in local communities to answer people's questions and share information.

National Grid began using the community liaisons last October following a snowstorm in New York. The group is part of the company's revamped communications strategy following Hurricane Irene, Kuebler explained.

"In Irene's aftermath, we didn't live up to customers' expectations, nor did we live up to our own," he said. "The lesson we learned is that people understand there will be outages in those situations, but they want communication. As long as you can provide information, they're understanding. Just not knowing becomes a source of frustration."

Meanwhile, Con Edison has also used a mix of social and traditional media to reach out to affected customers. More than 900,000 Con Ed customers lost power during Hurricane Sandy, the highest number of outages in the company's history, said spokesman Allan Drury. Before this storm, the highest number of outages that the company experienced was more than 200,000 during Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

Con Ed invited reporters from local TV stations, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets into its corporate emergency response center, the company's command and control area where it is coordinating its restoration campaign. Con Ed has also held several press briefings and conducted dozens of media interviews each day with local, national, and international outlets, Drury said.

Eight staff members are coordinating the company's communications response. It also has a social media team responding to customer inquiries on Twitter and Facebook, and Con Ed is maintaining a digital map of outages on its website.

"When I started [at Con Ed] a few years ago, we didn't have a social media team, and it wasn't as much a part of our communications plan," Drury said. "Now there's just more of all of it - tweets, media calls, releases - because of the scale of the outages."

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