It might sound counterintuitive, but crisis communication can be an opportunity to enhance a company’s reputation and not just a focus of serious corporate concern.
Usually a company shifts into crisis mode when faced with significant accusations, customer harm or financial dire straits. New York-based energy company Con Edison has had its share of wide power outages caused by major weather events and natural gas incidents, along with the resulting public criticism.
In recent years the company has often been a first responder, a significant source of relief and a remedy. Those situations most often involve a natural calamity—hurricanes, wildfires or natural gas ruptures causing power outages.
Con Edison played a principal role in coming to the rescue in other parts of the country as part of Mutual Assistance, a system through which utilities help one another, sometimes at great distances, following significant calamities. The aim is usually to restore electric power.
The challenge is getting to the affected region quickly, delivering the requisite personnel, equipment and skills, as well as a willingness to sacrifice to restore service.
It’s a powerful display of resources, skill and commitment, but all that effort and success can take place in a vacuum if one key element is missing. What’s often not in many energy companies’ emergency plans are the storytellers. That can result in losing priceless opportunities to provide powerful, lasting images.
We’ve seen the results in recent years in Puerto Rico, California, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Tons of positive stories increased social media followings, boosted worker morale, elicited top executives’ praise and even won some awards.
Restoring Power to California
What’s it take? First of all, buy-in. Corporate leaders should realize the PR benefits of helping others and spotlighting hardworking employees. Start with a team of one or two video storytellers. Costs include travel and accommodations, maybe a rental car and, of course, an iPhone with a microphone.
The storytellers must be trained to use the iPhone to take photos, shoot video and do interviews. They also must act as breaking-news reporters, as well as company spokespersons and media managers.
Here are some tips:
- The story starts at home. Before the energy crews leave, put together a big sendoff at the airport or docks or highway rest stop. Get hometown TV, radio and newspapers to cover it.
- Realize that the story never stops. Shoot video of the crews en route, take notes about crews with specialized skills, and identify “characters” to help the stories move along.
- Keep going. Shoot the arrival, the hotel setup, the turnout or roll call area.
- Learn the turf, and make friends. Find out who you need to know from the energy company you’re helping, as well as key people in local government emergency response. You’re going to need them.
- Get close to your company’s chief managers on scene. They will know when and where they will be responding.
- Look for stories everywhere. They are not just about your workers. They must include customers, residents and regular folks witnessing and benefiting from the restoration work. They are your biggest fans.
Puerto Rico: Lights Back On
Con Edison Helping Florida Residents Recover from Hurricane Irma
- Identify the story focus. A story might not be about your crew restoring power to a church. It’s about a church that continued having services because of your crew.
- Work under strict deadlines. You must get your stories online, especially on social media, the day they happen (or the next morning at the latest). After that, they’re stale.
- Focus on faces and feelings. Record video messages of your crews expressing their willingness to be away from home and family to get the job done. Offer those video clips to hometown TV stations, and post them on your website and social media platforms.
From Puerto Rico to New York, Con Edison Employees Give Thanksgiving Greetings
- Relate to the time of year. The crews are missing a holiday celebration or the start of Little League.
- Prepare for trouble back home. Similarly, realize the impact of having your company not at full strength. What if there’s a power outage? Have a contingency plan and a statement ready to answer questions about being stretched thin.
- Share your stories—and learn about others—by interacting with reporters on scene.
- Envision possible scenarios. Think about a recent natural disaster, maybe the wildfires in Australia or California. How would you cover them?
If your company is interested in creating a “crisis story response squad” to tell stories about your workers in those situations, start to plan and lobby now. The team can start by covering local outages and emergencies remotely.
Philip O’Brien is assistant director of media relations at Con Edison. Sidney Alvarez is a media manager at Con Edison and host of the company’s video productions.