ATLANTA: If there’s any company that knows how to handle a crisis, it's a power company when 950,000 of its customers are without electricity.
Georgia Power Company landed in that very situation when Hurricane Irma swept up the coast of Florida straight into Georgia in September. Rather than evacuating, the comms team hunkered down in its Atlanta storm center for the long haul, preparing for days of constant communication with the media and customers during the inevitable power outages.
As customers lose power, they are quick to lash out at their power company, but setting expectations and keeping them informed goes a long way, said Jacob Hawkins, corporate communication manager at Georgia Power Company.
"Once you get to the second day without power, people do get frustrated," Hawkins said. "When you’re without power, you’re isolated, you don't see what’s going on a mile down the street. Social media is an incredible tool for us, not just to share our message, but to illustrate the scope and scale of storm and what our crews are facing in the field."
Showcasing the damage and the work Georgia Power staffers are doing in the field goes a long way to cut some of that frustration off, he explained.
That effort to keep people informed resulted in 30 news releases, more than 280 news stories, 137 interviews with Georgia Power employees, and more than 150 social media updates over the course of the storm -- all of which came out of the 24-hour Atlanta storm center.
With a hurricane, there’s plenty of warning and time to prepare. Georgia Power began sending out safety tips and news releases about the storm five days before it hit Georgia. The company offers safety tips, such as avoiding downed power lines or how to properly set up a generator, and proactive measures to take, such as charging all devices.
"Before the storm, communications are focused on reinforcing to our customers that we’re prepared and we're watching and providing them with useful information they can use to be prepared for multiple days of power outages," Hawkins said. "We’re setting expectations and reinforcing safety."
Once the storm hits, Hawkins said there’s often very little the company can do. Work crews can’t begin restoration with high winds, so the comms team sits tight during the storm, answers questions and concerns on social media, and keeps the media updated. Their main goal is to provide outage data and weather updates. Georgia Power reported the climbing outage numbers as the storm passed over the state.
After the storm is when the work begins and the complaints start rolling in. Updates range from photos from on-the-ground teams to press conferences with the CEO to social media videos to answer customer’s questions. The effort is highly coordinated, with press releases, outage information, and photos going across both Georgia Power’s employee intranet to get information quickly to field teams and out to the media and the public.
Not all storm communications are digital. As outages stretch several days, people’s cell phones start to die and they are truly in the dark. For those people, Georgia Power relies on field teams getting the latest information from headquarters on the intranet and relaying it local community leaders from mayors to pastors.
The comms team even works to educate people about the process of restoring power after a hurricane, from the initial damage assessment once the storm clears to updating individuals who ask when their power will come back.
"We can’t overcommunicate in a storm," Hawkins said. "Customers are sitting in the dark or made alternate arrangements and they want to be informed. Even if you have no new news on their power outages, telling them on a high level that you have 8,000 in the field or you expect to have 90% back on by Sunday helps."
Power Outage FAQs - Why do some houses have power while others close by do not? pic.twitter.com/ZXNLFEzSrA— Georgia Power (@GeorgiaPower) September 12, 2017
Storms become an all-hands-on-deck operation for Georgia Power. The comms team of about 50 - including corporate comms staff, social media staff, designers, photographers, and customer service reps - worked in shifts all day and night during and after Irma. The rest of the company’s 7,000 employees also have specific, predetermined roles for a storm crisis to get everyone back online as soon as possible.
"Power restoration and storms is when Georgia Power shines and when people pay attention," Hawkins said. "It’s pretty obvious when you don’t have power."