January 4, 2013
Unsung heroes. Every organization and community has them. When Mother Nature strikes and the power goes out, it’s the electric utility line crews that play this role.
Nearly two weeks before making landfall on the New Jersey shore on Oct. 29, Superstorm Sandy thrust power companies along the Eastern Seaboard into preparation mode: Check equipment inventories, put line crews on alert, boost call center staffing plans, and use mutual assistance agreements to line up reinforcements from other utilities away from the storm’s projected path, should they be needed.
Duke Energy’s six-state service territory largely escaped Sandy’s wrath, enabling the company to dispatch nearly 3,000 employees and contractors to assist with power restoration efforts in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. This represented the largest deployment of Duke Energy line workers outside the company’s footprint in its history.
Our Charlotte, N.C.-based corporate communications team knew that we had a story to tell on behalf of our field crews, but the question remained: How was the best way to tell it?
Our typical storm response PR plan goes like this: Invite local media to our line crew staging grounds prior to deployment; issue news releases as developments unfold; share updates and multimedia with employees via the company’s portal or intranet; and post power restoration figures, facts and timelines via our social media properties.
Depending on the severity of the storm and duration of its aftermath, we also embed one or more of our corporate communicators with field crews to funnel real-time information and images to the media.
We leveraged the same strategies this time around — but with a twist. Instead of relying on traditional media to repackage our material and localize the Sandy story, we opted to tell the story ourselves via content created by social media-savvy corporate communications staffer Lee Freedman, and shared it via blogs and Twitter.
Securing internal approval of the concept proved to be surprisingly easy for a company of our size. Executives instantly recognized the potential upside of the plan.
Mere hours after we conceived the idea, 30-year-old Freedman was on a plane to Cincinnati to join a New York-bound field crew that specializes in underground power line repairs. This complex work, always fraught with peril, posed an even greater challenge given that the storm surge had flooded many of power company Con Edison’s “vaults,” or equipment chambers, in Lower Manhattan.
During the road trip to New York, Freedman explained his mission to the somewhat skeptical field crew of 21 that were assigned to him. “They had heard of Twitter and some are on Facebook, but a lot of the line crew members don’t use these tools on a regular basis,” explained Freedman. “One crew member pulled me aside and asked me, ‘What’s a blog?’ It was a sincere question and helped me gauge how much work I had ahead of me in getting their buy-in.”
Freedman signaled his crew’s arrival by posting photos on Twitter from darkened Lower Manhattan. Soon he was sharing a steady stream of updates and images as his crew shuttled between staging areas, work sites and their makeshift accommodations, which included one night on cots aboard a docked dinner cruise boat.
Initially, crew supervisor Doug Akins was worried that Freedman’s presence might be a distraction or stumbling block for his team.
“But Lee’s mindset and objective from the beginning was to understand what we were doing and how we were doing it, and then communicate that back to employees and the public,” he said. “Lee did that without being a nuisance or getting in the way of our work.”
The response to Freedman’s Twitter stream also served to buoy the spirits of the weary Duke field crews working in New York.
“During downtime, I would go truck to truck and hold up my iPhone to line workers in the utility trucks so they could see the tweets of support and encouragement we had received in response to my blogs and tweets,” he recalled. “Once they saw social media in action, it actually picked up their spirits because they realized people were cheering them on from afar.”
Back in Charlotte, our corporate communications team began publicizing Freedman’s Twitter account (@LeeFreedman) and blog posts via a news release, internal communication channels and the company’s social media properties.
During the course of two weeks, Freedman posted more than 100 Twitter updates (picking up just as many new followers), published eight blog posts, and completed numerous interviews with regional and national media, resulting in highly favorable coverage.
One on-site interview that Freedman conducted with an Associated Press reporter resulted in a story that framed the visiting Duke crew’s travails in an exceptionally positive light. Dozens of media outlets across the country, including The Wall Street Journal, picked up the article. Twitter users also retweeted it extensively.
“WBTV used every bit of information Lee provided, mostly through Twitter,” said Laura Houston, a producer with Charlotte’s CBS television affiliate. “He shared where crews were working for the day, the long hours they’d been working and even the thanks that victims of the storm were giving them. He also did a live phone interview on my show not long after he arrived in the Northeast.”
Charlotte Business Journal reporter John Downey also pulled from Freedman’s dispatches. “Aside from just giving the story a place and voice, Lee’s updates helped give our readers an idea of what the crews faced and what the people of New York and New Jersey faced,” he said.
For Freedman, social media provided Duke’s stakeholders with a window into what is usually grueling, thankless work.
“Using Twitter to show and tell our story was invaluable,” he said. “I was able to tweet our work locations so the media could find us. I also sent out photos of our work environments underneath streets, sidewalks and buildings — areas where journalists just couldn’t access.”
Internally, we packaged his tweets, photos and blogs on a portal page, updated it several times daily and publicized it through a number of employee communication channels.
We also leveraged a new virtual discussion forum called Speak Up to encourage employees to convey their appreciation and support to colleagues who were on assignment in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. Dozens of employees responded within the first few days, with hundreds more recommending or Liking their peers’ posts.
Channeling updates from the front lines of the Sandy power restoration effort to the company’s 29,000 employees led to a number of positive outcomes.
With more than 34,000 page views, our internal coverage localized the catastrophe and helped connect our workforce in a personal and meaningful way to the regions hit hardest.
In addition, coverage of the company’s response to Sandy served to unite our fractured workforce, which had recently endured a protracted merger-planning process that spanned 18 months and culminated in an eleventh-hour CEO switch.
One consequence of success is that it begets higher expectations. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We learned a great deal from the personal and direct storytelling approach that we embraced in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
As a result, the next time that a storm of consequence bears down on Duke Energy’s own service territory, we’ll be ready.
Greg Efthimiou, M.A., APR, is a communications director in Duke Energy’s corporate communications group. He is a contributing author to “Corporate Communication: Sixth Edition” (2012) and the “Handbook of Crisis Communication” (2008).
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