The year 2020 redefined essential: essential workers, essential products, essential businesses. As president and CEO of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, Pedro Pizarro understood that with COVID-19 spreading, wildfires raging and racial injustice protests fracturing a nation, running one of the nation’s largest electric utilities was as essential as never before.
“We’ve always had the responsibility of this essential service,” Pizarro says. “It’s a real sense of mission, but man oh man that was multiplied like crazy with the intensity of our efforts this past year.”
When mandatory social distancing and shelter-in-place orders went into effect during the start of the pandemic, Pizarro had to balance the safety of his employees with keeping the lights on for 15 million residents in Southern California who were now working or schooling from home.
This monumental undertaking meant communicating transparently and altering established business and safety practices.
“We actually had pandemics as part of our business resiliency plan, but this was a once-in-100-years thing,” Pizarro says.
Despite all the preparations in place for such disasters, Pizarro and his team at Edison had a number of policies they needed to make up on the go, including allowing two-thirds of Edison’s 13,000 employees to work safely and effectively from home.
“Before this, we had video tools, but I would have envisioned a big organizational change in management process and training to take months,” he says. “We did it in a few days. When you have that sort of imperative, people adapt.”
During his time away from the physical office, Pizarro increased the frequency of his company-wide live streams, which had been an Edison staple for several years, from quarterly to weekly.
Each session featured a two-way discussion chat box, where Pizarro fielded questions about mental health and the political environment while also giving updated information that matched pace with changing federal and state guidelines. Even after the pandemic ends, Pizarro sees Edison moving to a hybrid work model where there is more virtual collaboration.
“We can capture the benefits of some productivity, flexibility and sustainability of not having everybody on the road all the time,” he explains, adding that he will continue monthly company-wide live streams. “The ability for any of the 13,000 employees to put a comment in the chat box has developed a relationship and a sense of intimacy I don’t want to lose.”
For the third of employees still needed in the field, safety measures were put in place to mitigate the chance of spread. With the help of the CEO-led Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, utilities such as Edison could collaborate with the federal government, CDC and DHS to develop industry-wide guidelines. These include deep-cleaning practices, health checks, contact tracing, mask wearing and messaging about physical distancing.
Working for an electric company often made these measures harder to enforce. Certain jobs demand more than one worker, and regular paper masks are a fire hazard.
“We had to work with our vendor community to find things such as fire resistant masks, which is a big deal,” Pizarro says. “Normal paper masks can be a hazard if you’re a line worker.”
Connecting with customers through a crisis
Externally, Pizarro knew it was also vital to maintain contact with customers worried about service and safety. Instead of relying on “old school” methods such as bill inserts and mass emails, he used social and earned media to connect with consumers.
“We needed to go beyond the core utility messages of safe, reliable power,” he explains. “We really engaged in the conversation around keeping each other safe as a society.”
Pizarro was on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force, where he was asked, as an economic leader, to amplify messaging around mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
“That took our engagement and the relationship with the customer to a different level to convey that they weren’t alone,” he says, adding that Edison also aided communities by putting a moratorium on power disconnections due to overdue bills.
When California experienced a record-setting wildfire season during the height of the pandemic, the problems compounded.
As a utility in high fire-risk areas, Edison has developed wildfire mitigation plans such as changing out almost 6,000 miles of electrical wire with insulated wire, installing cameras and adding weather monitoring equipment.
With more customers at home, scheduling preparations and repairs in these high-risk areas was a delicate balancing act of working with communities to schedule later working hours and halting some non-critical work.
“We always work with our communities to mitigate impacts from temporary outages for repairs, but with the pandemic you had everybody at home relying on their power to do their work,” Pizarro says. “That also meant preparing our employees to interface with their customers who may not be so happy about work being done at any given time.”
Edison’s connection to its communities and employees was put to the test after the March police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the May death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked national outrage.
With one of the most diverse boards in the S&P 500 — seven of its 11 members are diverse in gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation — transparency has been Pizarro’s policy from the start.
“This is about more than just our company. This is about our society,” he points out. “When we hire, we want to make sure our company looks like the community around us, and we need to have qualified people from across a diverse spectrum.”
For more than 10 years, Edison had been publishing its representation data around gender and race. In 2018, the reports expanded to include pay data, but in 2020, Pizarro wanted to open up further to employees. Having effective communication with employees meant not shying away from difficult topics during company livestreams — a difficult feat when Edison’s employee base varies so widely across the racial and political spectrum.
“We took questions asking, ‘Will you say Black Lives Matter, but what about all lives and what about blue lives?’” he says. “It got quite spicy at times.”
The conversation led to Edison doubling down on its DE&I initiatives. The company has focused efforts on mentoring and partnering Black employees to further their careers and implemented third-party audits on its ethics and HR processes.
Edison also published a pulse survey that explained employee sentiment and released a report in August that shared details about workforce, suppliers and community investment.
“In general we have happy employees, but the views from many of our Black employees were not so rosy,” he says. “We still published those views, though, because we felt that’s an important part of the discussion.”
External measures included donating at least $20 million in shareholder funds to support STEM education, diversity initiatives and civic causes such as helping the environment.
For Pizarro, the key to being authentic as a company in support of these causes is transparency even when mistakes are made, be that with diversity, wildfires or power outages.
“We have a million and a half poles and 750,000 transformers over 50,000 square miles,” he says. “Things go wrong.”
These issues are easier to overcome with strong leaders in his communications team. Pizarro gives his comms leaders — including Beth Foley, CCO and VP, corporate communications — a seat at the table and listens to their counsel.
“You can lose 135 years of public trust in one minute if you do the wrong thing,” he warns. “It’s true for any business, but particularly a regulated utility, trust needs to be at the core of our purpose to better serve our employees and our communities.”