How your team’s on-scene crisis coverage boosts your brand

Take a page from Con Edison’s playbook: When disaster strikes, have your folks on scene to record video and interviews so consumers get the full picture of your staff’s remedial efforts.  

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.

COMMENT

One Response to “How your team’s on-scene crisis coverage boosts your brand”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    This is absolutely superb, as good as anything I’ve seen about “on the ground” crisis PR (as distinguished from theoretical stuff.)

    It’s interesting that Philip O’Brien is ASSISTANT Director of Media Relations. Further down they are still learning it, and at the level of Director or higher they are more likely to plan about crisis and talk about crisis and spend lot of time at meetings rather than actually managing crisis.

    Especially wise and rare is O’Brien’s recognition that PR crisis can be a “Priceless Opportunity.” True! Many or most in PR approach crisis with dread and endure it almost praying it will soon end. But because of the huge media coverage that crisis may beget, you have an opportunity to get space and time for important realities that are often hard to make known.

    Three additional ideas on this:

    .1. It would be god for top management of any large company like Con Edison to have advance thinking and agreement on Five Important Realities the company would like more people to know. This way company people talking to the press can talk about not just details of the crisis or event but sometimes work in references to one or more of the Five Realities.

    .2. It could be good to see that even people like cameramen and gofers have some basic media training. Journalists may look for comment to anyone connected to the company, and if a cameraman begins a comment, “What I think personally, to tell you the truth. . .” what he or he thinks personally may kill you.

    .3. Unlike Con Edison, most companies can’t readily field a team of cameramen and reporters so having at least one local PR firm could save you all kinds of grief and help you make the most of the Priceless Opportunity.

    I’d love to see a piece by someone like O’Brien, and there aren’t many, on “Avoid These Common PR Tragedies.” Some of the same bad things happen in one PR crisis after another but most people come to crisis uninstructed and may respond almost like barefoot pilgrims. An article of cautions like O’Brien’s can be protective. The CYA rule is instinctive but also covering your company’a tail can take training like that at Ragan conferences.

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