Mere hours after Hurricane Irene departed my hometown, I found myself relying almost completely on Social Media – not only for weather related developments but for details on a breaking crime story in my area.
Where traditional media was unavailable – no power for TV, lack of a battery-powered radio in my home (I failed to join the masses in a mad shopping spree for supplies just days before Irene began her march up the East Coast), print media no longer able to keep up with the need for immediate information – social media platforms became a primary resource for information for myself and others.
Via a traditional media reporter on Twitter I tracked the manhunt for a killer in Bucks County during Irene’s rage, while using Facebook to learn how friends and family fared in the hours after the rains subsided and damage could be accessed. And all I needed was my iPhone. God bless Steve Jobs.
Another lesson, learned long ago but reinforced in this weather situation, was that a lack of communication can quickly turn potential heroes into social pariahs. Regardless of the vastness of power outages in New Jersey, the perception that area utilities weren’t doing enough to get the word out on damages and repairs reverberated throughout the state on Sunday.
While Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), New Jersey’s largest electric provider, directed the public to its Twitter handle @PSE&Goutageinfo and provided a website for the public to report problems, the effort was a weak attempt to effectively use the utility’s communication vehicles. PSE&G pushed out information about the number of outages every three hours or less, but failed to establish a dialogue of any kind with its customers. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t timely and as a result it wasn’t effective.
NJ 101.5 FM radio reflected the frustration of many NJ utility customers when it reported, throughout the day, that it was unable to get any response from various utilities on the state of the state’s power supply. PSE&G, and its New Jersey peers, had an opportunity to become heroes by keeping the public appropriately and regularly informed – trumpeting successes while also shaping the gravity of the work needed to get the state turned back on – and failed to fully utilize the available tools.
In a world where people use Facebook, Twitter and countless other social platforms to keep their fans and followers informed of their every thought and action, companies have a duty to their customers – and to their own reputations – to use those platforms effectively to communicate in good times and bad. And that communication must be a dialogue, not a monologue.
For the PSE&Gs of the world, a hard lesson learned is this: you cannot use social media merely to push out information. That approach is the surest path to failure. It’s about engagement, empathy and making clear there is a relationship between the customer and the provider that is more than just transactional. When Newark Mayor Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) is more successful in communicating with your customers on issues about your company via social media platforms than you are, there’s a problem.
I hope the utilities will consider how to better utilize their social media platforms and revise their communication plans accordingly. In fact, I’d love to talk to them about how to make these platforms more meaningful to them and their customers.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching … from my iPhone in case the power goes out again.