How [not] to explain a failure to communicate

During the evening of Nov. 30, the Los Angeles area experienced the worst windstorm in most resident’s memory. My wife and I were there and from our fourth floor hotel room in Pasadena, which had some of the worst damage, we saw and felt the ferocious wind. The next day we were awestruck by the wind’s power seeing hundreds of massive trees toppled on houses, cars and streets. Miraculously, there were no reported injuries or fatalities.

From a crisis communication standpoint, this was primarily about power outages. Well over 300,000 people in the area were without power. Power is provided by Southern California Edison, a private utility, and Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP), the nation’s largest public utility serving about 4 million customers. DWP is my client and I was in LA, coincidentally, to work with them on message mapping for large events–such as windstorms with large scale power outages.

I’ve commented on about the incredible work done by dedicated public officials. Since I was assisting DWP, I was also able to be a part of the first-ever city-wide activation of Los Angeles’ magnificent new Emergency Operations Center. The coordination was impressive.

In the aftermath of this event, Southern California Edison is finding itself very much on the defensive regarding its communication. There is much to learn from this event about communication in a large scale power outage and I’ll be commenting more about some things I learned while working this event–both successes and failures. But right now I want to point out what not to say when you are being accused of failing to communicate as SoCalEdison is.

In this unfortunate presentation captured on video and presented on Patch, a SoCalEdison executive explains that one of the reasons the company did not effectively communicate with its customers is that they placed a priority on getting the power back on. Oops, big mistake. It is similar to the shipping company who after a big spill from one of their ships put a message on their website asking people not to bother them with questions as they were very busy cleaning up the spill. Sorry, organizations like shipping companies and massive public utilities today are expected to have the resources to BOTH do their jobs and tell people what is going on. So rule one: DON’T ever use the preoccupation with responding as an excuse for not communicating effectively.

After this little problem, SoCalEdison has found itself the target of elected officials in the region complaining about their communication failures. This is not at all unusual for elected officials to jump on and amplify the complaints of their constituents, and of course, this is great fodder for journalists. Personally, as I monitored SoCalEdison’s activities during the early stages of the outage disaster, I was impressed with much of their communication. I do think it went downhill after a good start. Nevertheless, what LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich pointed out as reported in this LA Times website story is quite correct:

But, Antonovich said, “You really need direct contact with those neighbors. … The media only works if you have electricity. They need to turn on the television. So that’s stupid.”
Even if people had cellphone service initially, “after a period of time, those batteries ran out.”
“When were you able to dispense information to the public [about] when the power would come back on?” Antonovich said.
He was also dismayed to hear from a resident who remained without power Tuesday, and another who said the utility didn’t know that her power was out because she did not have a “smart” electrical meter. For those homes, Edison relies on phone calls and patrols to determine what areas are without power, Gutierrez said.
Antonovich questioned how customers would have known to call. And those who did call in dealt with slow operators, Antonovich said. In addition, he said, Edison’s website failed to provide accurate updated information.

Direct communication. That should be the mantra of everyone in crisis communication today–and especially in power outages. There continues to be far, far, far too much reliance on media communication in an era when increasingly more get their news directly via internet. Major events in the past have proven that not only is the internet the most resilient form, that even in power outages people use their smartphones recharged from car batteries to maintain communication. But, if your focus is on providing the broadcasters with the latest and you are not using Twitter, your website, email distributions, text messaging to get the information out, you will fail. And you will have to answer to Supervisor Antonovich.