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Powerful ideas for dealing with social media crisis

Darcy Spencer of NBC Washington covered this story.
Photo credit:  NBC Washington

“Would you bother owning a telephone if you had no intention of answering it?” That’s the question I asked over the weekend to Dominion Power (Twitter: @DomVApower).  The social phone was ringing but Dominion wasn’t answering.

Four industrial-sized transformers, that feed power to about 400 condominium units housing roughly 1,000 people, blew out about 12:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.  Power would not return until 5:00 p.m. three days later.  It was a period of time for which Dominion was all but silent, but perhaps a time, when they should have been talking the most. (Screen shot right from NBC news coverage here).

Photo credit: NBC Washington
Dominion’s automated help line sends customers into that dizzying cataclysm of the inhuman variety we’ve all come to detest.  All in response to a crisis that is quite essential to humanity.  For this building, without power there is no cooking, no hot water and no heat.  While a person of my background and training can quite easily make do with canned goods, and I have gone many weeks, let alone days without showers, the heat is something people cannot do without.  This is especially for the senior citizens and young children that reside in this building:  Winter is upon the DC area, and the mercury has fallen.

About 11 hours after I logged a complaint with Dominion’s automated telephone line, I received an automated call back that power would be restored at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. This was about halfway through the outage and the message would prove inaccurate – it would be another 24 hours before power would be restored.  Even as I type these words, the fix that is on is only temporary.  We may yet see another outage before this problem is completely remediated.

When you want to talk to your customers, it’s personal and it’s about money; yet when customers want to talk to you about service interruptions, they get automation — robo calls — and with flawed facts at that.

This anecdote goes to show why traditional communication systems are a poor substitute for social media – real time communication to borrow a phrase from David Meerman Scott’s mantra (and a book you should read).  While social media may seem like a haven for critics in a time of crisis, it’s also where social media can be at its finest hour. 

As the season turns colder, Dominion Power would do well to warm to this idea because while the building I live in poses as a small city, if last winter’s accumulation of snowfall is any indication, this is bound to happen again, and on a much larger scale.  Moreover, as the year closes, we’re seeing social media adoption by average consumers increase dramatically. And you don’t get cool points for merely being on Twitter anymore:  you must engage.

Conjecture and experience tells me Dominion is afraid to engage the public on Twitter.  They’d rather keep it hushed up, engagement means attracting attention to the story and more people would know about it.  You can discard those ideas — it’s — out — there — and it’s quite public.  A better approach would be to join the conversation, use the medium to deliver tips that are useful in a time of crisis, and help frame the issue with the air of calming confidence and penchant for customer service. 

Yes, it might mean more headcount, but what’s the cost of abstinence? Especially for a company that audaciously raises electricity rates 18 percent as the nation plummets into a recession.  Twitter may have no memory, but the people behind Twitter do.

Photo credit:  iPhone 4
To understand the problem I did what Dominion could not seem to do:  I talked to the crew.  I walked down to the site, found the guy that looked like he was in charge and asked some questions. I wasn’t rude, or upset, I simply was looking for information:  How bad is it?  How long before power will be restored?

It was at this moment I learned where Dominion had missed its opportunity:  I found hard working Americans, missing their own holiday turkey, working tirelessly to troubleshoot and correct the issue.  The first night these men coordinated the delivery of new transformers – which are about the size of a midsized sedan – installed them and soon got some power back to about half the building.  Many of these men had been awake for 24 or more hours and working in an inhospitable climate.  So at 6 a.m., I bought two giant boxes of coffee from a local coffee shop and a carton of Honey Buns and set them up at their work station. The foreman waved his thanks.

What would I advise Dominion Power to do differently?

Twitter. Engage.  It’s that simple.  It’s okay if you don’t have the answers.  Develop systems now for your people to get in touch with…your other people and get the answers.  Post updates as to the size, severity and duration of the outage.  Give people the answers they are looking for.  Will you get beat up?  Of course you will. But that goes with the territory.  You hang in there, do the best you can, and overall, you’ll win over most reasonable people over.  Let’s face it:  electrical work is pretty darn close to rocket science.  People understand that.

Facebook.  First, take charge of Facebook – those pages you control now, and those you — probably — weren’t — aware — even — existedFacebook is an intimate platform, but you have information your customers want. There is no better place for you to engage customers and with all the benefits of multimedia.  The work you do is incredibly technical, the engineering feats spectacular and perhaps worthy of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs.

Flickr.  Digital photo sharing offers a very easy low risk way of enabling your entire work force to take photos from work sites and offer them for upload to Flickr.  You can post directly by email, or develop a process where workers e-mail a generic corporate site and have a “photo editor” review and approve photos accordingly.  Pictures are worth a thousand words; think: complexity of wire networks, the fatigue on the face of an unshaven worker on his 9th cup of coffee braving the cold to restore service, or the numbing chill of seeing electrical wires strewn about the road after a heavy snow fall.  These photos sell stories for newspapers – they can help you get your {human} message out too!

YouTube.  Put your people on the front line…on the social media front line.  When I talked to your crew, I found them to be sincere, competent and genuinely concerned people working as hard as they could to restore power.  How much would it take to put a hard hat on a corporate PR person and send them down with a flip cam to do a couple of interviews?  Not very much.  Better still, give your foreman a little training and iPhone and allow them to do it themselves.  A couple of two minute videos would do well to humanize the work you do and the steps you are taking.

Blog.  Create a dedicated blog for such emergencies and updates.  Sure you’d take some flack in the comments, but it’s also a platform where you can integrate your other social media efforts – like those from YouTube, Flickr and Twitter.  This blog would become the focus of news outlets covering outage causing winter storms, flash floods and high winds.  Sure, not all the coverage would be positive, but you’d keep the negative coverage, posts and comments pointing to the blog and not your home page, while also framing the context by offering a {human} response.

For the tireless critic.  You’ll get these guys from time to time, and one of my most read posts of all time is exactly on strategies for dealing with negative bloggers.  If I were to update that post, it would still favor engagement, only I’d try a personal YouTube video addressed to the perpetual thorn in side, or even perhaps an invitation to a personal tour by someone with an important sounding title in the support department – and to be clear: I’m not pitching for one here, it’s just how I’d handle it if roles were reversed.   In a public social media world you are judged by both how you cultivate your fans and engage your critics.

Be human. My initial question that opened this post is more rhetorical than literal.  Answering the social telephone doesn’t mean you’ll have it right 100 percent of the time.  When learning to ski with my father growing up, he used to say something that has stuck with me my whole life, “You’ve got to fall down 1,000 times before you’re an expert.”  Those words ring true for social media as well, in essence, it’s an admission that we are all human, even big corporations.

*  * *
Rest assured Dominion’s situation is not unique.  Any telephone, Internet, cable, or similar utility service provider, with tens of thousands of customers, is in the same situation: vulnerable to nature, headlines and seething customers armed only with an iPhone that can be recharged in a vehicle.  Moreover, given the regulated nature of these industries, it wouldn’t surprise me if in ten years such a response on social media sites became compulsory, rather than prescriptive.

All said, I’m not a fan of “flame” posts, I don’t believe in doing them, as I usually find them obnoxious, self-serving, and I can empathize with a like-minded person surely sitting on the opposite side of a post like this.  However, this event literally struck home and is reflective of some very interesting conversations I’ve had – prior to this event – this month.  I took a day to cool off before writing this post and I’ve tried to be constructive in my comments, but would welcome your thoughts:

What advice would you give companies like Dominion? What criticism would you have for me?

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Frank Strong, MA, MBA
Frank Strong, MA, MBA

Thanks Farida. To their credit, someone did reach out to me for a chat, so if this is a sincere effort or lip service, remains to be seen. I'm open minded. Appreciate the comment!

Farida Harianawala
Farida Harianawala

Great post, Frank. You're right - there was definitely a missed opportunity there for Dominion to reach out and engage. Sure, they would have had to face the wrath of customers but at least giving constant updates and answering questions on the situation would have helped reassure people and make them feel less frustrated. Surely, Dominion's customers deserved at least that much for having to go without heat, light and hot water on Thanksgiving weekend.

Frank Strong, MA, MBA
Frank Strong, MA, MBA

I think you are right Krista as the mantra goes, every challenge sows the seeds of opportunity. This will definitely become more and more relevant -- just think about how much less we use the actual phone part of our mobile devices these days. Today it's all Tweets, status updates, check-ins and various sources of information available digitally.


Wow, sorry to hear about the damper on your Thanksgiving! At least you can make a teachable moment out of it. This is a great case for use of social media for better customer service, especially in a crisis situation. With so many consumers already engaged online, it's even more relevant for companies to participate and foster better customer relations via the social web.

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