How Con Ed's comms team wrangled the major Manhattan blackout

A blow-by-blow account of what the team did Saturday through Monday.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

A power cable fire sparked a cascading series of systemic failures that plunged a swath of New York City into darkness on Saturday.

While affected Broadway shows and subway terminals emptied out into the streets, Con Edison’s communications team marshalled its response, bracing for a flurry of questions from customers, journalists and politicians.

The following is a timeline of Con Edison’s media relations efforts in relation to the blackout.

Saturday, July 13

At 6:47 p.m. EST, Midtown falls into darkness, sending Con Edison employees scrambling for answers and solutions.

Engineers assess the scale of any damage to equipment, such as transformers and electrical feeders. 

"Before you start closing breakers again and getting the lights back on, engineers have to make sure nothing has been damaged or it will cause more damage," said Michael Clendenin, director of media relations at Con Edison.

Thus begins a three-day crush of press conferences, interviews and meetings. Much like its engineers, Con Edison’s comms team tries to mitigate any further damage.

Everyone in Con Edison’s media relations department is expected to be ready 24 hours a day. The spokesperson on duty that night, Sidney Alvarez, is at home in New Jersey.

Shortly after Midtown goes dark, Alvarez starts receiving media inquiries. So does Clendenin, who rushes home to help Alvarez craft a statement.

Meanwhile, videos and pictures of the blackout overtake social media.

"As we start to collect more information, we’ve got to get our press releases out," said Clendenin. "[We have to] explain the boundaries, the size and the number of customers impacted."

Clendenin phones as many Con Edison directors and VPs for whatever information is available so the company can provide a swift response. Two comms staffers set up at headquarters to man the phones.

"A lot of outages that do occur can be easily and quickly explained: a tree falls on a power line, there’s a manhole fire with an electrical cable burnout," Clendenin said. "You can tell people there was a key transmission point. With something like this, it’s a lot more complicated."

Despite lacking a detailed reconstruction of the blackout’s cause, Con Edison knows it must communicate with the public.

"We felt we kept people informed as rapidly as we could, given that when these things happen, the causes or scope aren’t always immediately clear," Clendenin said. "That makes communicating difficult. In today’s world with social and digital media, it’s important to acknowledge that at least you’re on top of it and that you’re responding."

Con Edison issues its first public statement in a tweet at 7:36 p.m. EST.

Con Edison follows up its tweet with its first press release at 8 p.m. EST, saying it’s working to restore power. This means the company has determined there was no extensive damage to equipment and it can start closing the breakers.

The New York office of Emergency Management prepares a press conference with Con Edison. Clendenin drives from Queens to Manhattan because subway lines are down.

At approximately 8:30 p.m., Clendenin parks at a garage at 38th Street and 5th Avenue. He has to walk about 30 blocks through Times Square to get to the press conference on the west end of 64th Street.

"As I got around Times Square, the lights started coming back on and cheers were going up," Clendenin said.

John McAvoy, Con Edison’s chairman, president and CEO, takes the podium during the press conference at around 10:30 p.m. EST with minimal prep.

"[McAvoy] is an engineer and he has been here for a very long time, close to 40 years, and he’s done everything a person at Con Ed can do when it comes to making the power go," Clendenin said. "So I don’t need to tell him what’s going on."

Serendipitously, power was restored during the press conference. At 10:56 p.m. EST, Con Edison posts a tweet on-site.

At 1 a.m., Con Edison announces it’s completely restored power to all 72,000 customers affected.

Clendenin goes to sleep at 2 a.m. EST.

Sunday, July 14

A few hours later, Clendenin wakes up and heads into the office.

"It was a blur," Clendenin said, trying to recall if his day began at 6:30 or 7.

Clendenin said he’s "generally pleased that [the media] all had what we provided."

The blackout coverage was "exactly what you’d expect," he said: Front page news, the top story on most of the radio and TV broadcasts and covered nationally, because it’s New York.

"The coverage pretty much had it right," said Clendenin. "I know we were getting a little bit of criticism for not knowing why and all that."

At the time, media coverage attributed the cause of the blackout to a transformer fire, something, Clendenin said Con Ed was unfortunately unable to control.

In the morning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers a stern warning to Con Edison, saying they "can be replaced." He also criticizes Con Edison for its lack of information.

"We don’t try to respond necessarily to an elected official’s tone or a statement they make, as much as we try to stay focused on our job," said Clendenin. "What they do with [our] information and what they decide to tell constituents is really up to them."

Con Edison would welcome an independent review, Clendenin said.

At 11:30 a.m. EST, Con Edison releases a statement apologizing for the blackout, promising to share its findings with regulators and the public "over the next several days and weeks."

The city holds a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner James O’Neill, Emergency Management Commissioner Deanne Criswell and Con Edison president Tim Cawley.

Cawley communicates that the idea a cable fire could lead to the blackout by affecting the transmission system is a "nonstarter."

Before the blackout, Con Edison’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were mostly fielding customer complaints, involving improperly parked vans used by employees, roadwork and other things. On most days, the company has around 2,000 mentions.

Between Saturday and Sunday, Con Edison has 450,000 mentions across Twitter and Facebook, said social media manager Ana Reynal.

"I was actually surprised to learn that 63% of the mentions [on social media] were positive," Reynal said. "Even though we get some negative mentions, just some complaints about not having electricity, we saw a lot of positivity from the public. [There were] a lot of comments about [Con Edison] getting the power back up quickly, so they were happy about that."

Clendenin clocks out at 9 p.m. EST.

Monday, July 15

Clendenin is back in the office at 6 a.m. EST.

"Monday I knew we still had a lot of work to do with interviews going into the cause," he said. "Plus, the media was focused on the upcoming heat wave."

Heat waves are often faulted for causing outages because of increased strain on the system as customers increase air conditioning usage. This weekend, New York is preparing for temperatures over 100 degrees.

Clendenin said he had to give an honest response to media outlets that asked him about this issue. More outages could be on the way, but crews would be ready to respond as quickly as possible to minimize service interruptions, he told them.

"It’s all about setting expectations," Clendenin said.

Con Edison spends $2 billion every year readying the system for the summer, he added.

Cuomo continues to threaten Con Edison with fines or revoking its franchise.

For most of the morning, Con Edison’s comms team fields media inquiries into the cause of the blackout.

Around noon, company engineers that worked through the night share with Clendenin what they discovered: in brief, a cable burnout caused the blackout after the "relay protection systems" at its substation at West 65th street failed.

While filled with engineer-speak, the statement describes the failure: "The relay protection system is designed with redundancies to provide high levels of reliability. In this case, primary and backup relay systems did not isolate a faulted 13,000-volt distribution cable at West 64th Street and West End Avenue."

After that, the media team pours its efforts into disseminating those preliminary findings.

In his office, Clendenin and his team brief journalists on deadline to clarify the record. Until then, there were reports a transformer fire caused the blackout. It didn’t help matters that Cawley, the previous day, discounted the cable fire as a "non-starter."

Shortly after, Con Edison coordinates an interview between Cawley and The New York Times. Cawley gives a blow-by-blow of what led to the five-hour blackout.

De Blasio says he’s "jaded" about Con Edison at a Brooklyn news conference, expressing uncertainty Con Edison will be able to handle New York’s imminent heat wave.

"I want to have faith," he says. "But it is not comforting that we don’t have a clear answer about what happened and what they’re doing about it. It’s just not."

The investigation into the blackout will continue. Often, these investigations take long periods of time.

"New Yorkers showed a lot of patience and poise during the blackout," Clendenin recalled telling news outlets. "The same kind of patience and poise is going to be needed as we get to the root cause."

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