Crisis Communications: Where Reputation is Won and Lost

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently. – Warren Buffet

When thinking about your Local Distribution Company (LDC) and the work it does, you may not immediately think about communication. However, a considerable amount of time is spent on communication. And as a utility with thousands of customers relying on us for their electricity, crisis communications are a vital part of our strategy to ensure that we promote, protect, and preserve the corporate reputation and brand.

On September 21st we faced the biggest challenge our company has seen in 20 years. A devastating storm that resulted in multiple tornadoes, heavy winds and lightning across Ottawa, left almost half of our customers without power. Hydro crews worked around the clock with contractors, emergency services and other utilities to restore power to over 174,000 customers, having to repair over 250 separate outages. This was the outage of all outages, with more damage to the grid than the aforementioned ice storm twenty years earlier. An outage of this scale, which lasted well into the following week, was high risk for the communications team as it had the potential of drastically impacting the sound reputation of the company.

Many in the industry argue that Estimated Time to Restore (ETR) is the only information of value. While it is true that customers do value ETRs, we have seen that they value communication more. If you can’t provide accurate ETRs – or in an instance like this even a vague ETR – communication about progress, damage, status, etc. can satisfy the customers’ desire for information. While an outage can definitely extend to a point where ETRs are necessary, this event demonstrated that overall communication was far more important.

Our strategy paid off. And this event has proven our communications team is up to the challenge and so is our crisis communications strategy. How did we do it?

Candor & Communication

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you can’t have solid crisis communication without communicating. Effective crisis communication is straight and to the point. You can’t hide facts and you can’t try to paint a different picture than what is really happening. During a crisis, the first few hours are of vital importance. Customers are waiting for information and it is vital that your company communicates it. If you sit back and wait, someone else will tell their version and you’ll be chasing the story from that point on. It is important to not overpromise, but some level of communications is necessary at the first sign of crisis.

One of the ways you can achieve this is by having an established plan and strategy for when your Crisis Communications Team (CCT) will be convened and what messaging needs to be shared. It will be event-specific, but if possible, communication can start before the crisis has even hit. With warnings from Environment Canada advising of heavy storm activity and warning of tornadoes, our social media team took the opportunity to get ahead of the outage by sharing these warnings and advising customers to charge phones and stay safe. Once the CCT was convened, they were quick to share information on social media and by updating media and shareholders on the status of the crisis. We didn’t go silent at the first sign of trouble and this made a huge difference in how this event panned out.

Openness, accessibility and transparency

In an event such as this, customers want to know what is being done to correct the problem. By utilizing various spokespeople and communicating regularly with members of the media, we were able to show what we were doing to fix the problem. The media was our greatest ally during this event, providing customers not tuned into social media with important updates on restoration. Through both remote interviews and on location coverage the media was able to help us convey just how heavily damaged the grid was. In 2018 customers do not expect lengthy power outages, and in general we are all very focused on our own world. It was important to explain what was impacted by the tornadoes and show the extent of the destruction to give those in areas not heavily hit the full picture of what our crews faced in order to restore power.

Align the Truthful Message

The truth in these situations is vital. Your reputation relies on it. When we say align the message, we are referring to the need for strong internal communication so that external communication is consistent. Ensuring that the media has the same information as your social media team which has the same information as stakeholders is vital. Nothing will impact your reputation negatively more than conflicting statements reaching customers who just want answers. Stakeholders are always watching during crisis situations and providing accurate information through all channels is extremely important.

How did we achieve this? With many people working many shifts over the extended outage our internal communications were what kept everything consistent. Regular meetings with the CCT to share information from the Incident Command Centre (ICC) kept all team members on the same page with regards to updated information. As shifts changed, each member debriefed their relief, passing on relevant information and status on where things stood. This kept the information being disseminated to the public, media and stakeholders flowing without delays.

Great things in business are never done by one person. They're done by a team of people. – Steve Jobs

Relevant, Timely & Responsive

During a crisis you have a captive audience. This can be both helpful and detrimental to reputation depending on how information is handled. With a captive audience you still need to ensure that what you are sharing is relevant and timely. People can be quick to anger when tests such as this event occur. Sharing information that is relevant will prevent that anger from being directed at you and your efforts. This outage wasn’t a time for gifs or comical images. The focus had to be information sharing, listening and providing customers with as much information on the restoration process as possible.

While an outage of this magnitude prevents us from responding to individual tweets, social listening allowed us to identify the areas where customers felt they were lacking information. We could then source info and provide updates to everyone at the same time. At the very least, acknowledging that customers and stakeholders are waiting on information can go a long way to managing a situation, giving you time to gather the necessary information to provide an update. Silence is never an option.

Leverage & Engage

Both of these ideas have been mentioned in different contexts but they are extremely important and worth another look. While it is true that it is your responsibility to communicate to your customers it is also in your best interest to leverage others in this process. While you never want to sit back and let the media speak for you, you do want to work with the media and fulfill requests they made in order to leverage their reach to communicate to customers you may otherwise not have access to. The same is true of stakeholders (and shareholders!). While some customers may not follow you on Twitter, they may very well follow a city councillor. Leveraging these partnerships to get as much up to date information out to as many people as possible is key. Solid crisis communications leverages all available channels – social media, traditional media, web updates, shareholder updates, etc. It is impossible to know how each customer will access information so accessing multiple channels increases your chances of reaching the majority of customers.

Engaging with your audience is another way to increase your reach, and this is something you should do consistently, not just during a crisis. By establishing a rapport with followers they will become your champions during situations like this. We found it unnecessary to address the negative posts from the few who chose to go in that direction as hundreds of customers and followers immediately took up our cause, sharing exactly what our crews were facing.

Challenges

While we were ultimately successful in preserving the reputation of the company despite the lengthy outage, it wasn’t seamless and we faced our own challenges. With an outage of this size, we saw record numbers in calls received, web sessions, as well as engagement on social channels and mentions. The sheer number of customers trying to access information overwhelmed some of our systems. This is another reason why leveraging all channels is so important. Our Outage Line was flooded with calls to the point where it could not always handle the volume. Similar impacts were felt on the website causing delays in loading time and creating problems with the Outage Centre map. We managed these by increasing communication in other areas such as social media while working to find fixes for the issues we experienced.

In the end, we rose above the challenges, as did our crews, and this event provides an excellent look at how communication plays an important role in managing a crisis.

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