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power outage sign imageOn August 27, a very angry Hurricane Irene came calling all up and down the east coast, including Virginia – which is where I live. I have plenty of hurricane experience, including a sojourn 500 miles offshore in a schooner during a Category 1 hurricane. I don’t recommend that experience unless you really want to know what your laundry feels like on max-agitate in your washing machine.

Landmasses with human habitation that are visited by hurricanes always have plenty of wind and flooding damage, and our experience with Irene was pretty typical. Lots of trees were knocked down, which took a lot of power lines with ’em, meaning that lots of local utility customers were in the steamy dark once Irene blew town.

#1 cause of a PR crisis: lots of unhappy people.

No one – at least, no one with a mature level of life experience – could have expected Dominion Virginia Power to restore everyone to lighted bliss immediately. Those of us who were here during Hurricane Isabel (hurricanes with “I” names must hate the Commonwealth of Virginia) knew we were in for a sweaty, dark few days, at least.

Crews from utilities in surrounding states came in to help Dominion crews get us all lit up again. They are still working their butts off, and they are most certainly not the target of this post’s ire.

Because Dominion has truly screwed the PR/crisis-comms pooch on Irene’s aftermath.

All the interactive outage maps in the world – and Dominion has some great ones – mean squat to customers who have to huddle in a local Panera or library to view them. Announcing where crews are working via local media is of some help.

What Dominion failed to do, however, was put a face on the problem. One of their top leadership team needed to become the face and voice of Dominion as they worked to restore their customers to the grid. As I write this – Sunday, Sept. 3 – 20% of Richmond-area customers are still without power.

That means that 1 out of 5 Dominion customers in this region are still in a Bronte novel, at least at night, wandering from room to room clutching candles. The contents of their refrigerators and freezers are long gone, and if they have an all-electric kitchen, they ain’t cooking dinner, either.

No one from Dominion’s senior leadership has been very visible during this event. The company’s Facebook page has been the wall where the unhappy sweaty scrum have been posting their displeasure, which has only compounded the problem, since the person or persons who manage the page seem to be as clueless as the rest of us. One response they posted in reply to a customer’s inquiry about the fact that the middle of a street was still dark, while the houses at each end had been restored:

I am sorry, we aren’t quoting specific restoration times. I don’t have the level of operations information you are looking for. tweet

Why on earth is the person who is representing a utility on a major social network NOT given access to operations information at a meaningful level? This tells me that Dominion views social media as a one-more-thing activity, rather than a key communication tool.

#fail

For next time, here are my recommendations. Dominion may or may not ever see these, but I already feel better for posting them.

  1. Make a top leader the face and voice of the company during the crisis.
  2. Have that face-and-voice respond to media inquiries at least daily, if not more frequently. What that leader says must be mirrored in/on every online outlet for customer-facing company information … which includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al.
  3. If you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” Shiny-happy-people, pie-in-the-sky, promise-the-world will only lead to the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Possibly yours.
  4. Tell the truth. This goes hand in hand with #3.
Simple. Works for a utility, a consumer-products company, a hospital, a factory. Have a leader lead, tell the truth.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …
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