Thursday, September 8, 2011

Social Media in a crisis: Lessons learned from PPL's use of Twitter during Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene proved to be a massive challenge for any power company on the East Coast last week, and PPL was certainly no exception, with hundreds of thousands of properties in its territories losing power for days on end during the storm.  Like any company, PPL had a plan of informing its customers about the outages and keeping its customers in the loop about what was happening with their electricity.

Key to that plan was Twitter.  If you followed PPL's Twitter account during the storm, @pplelectric, you know that they were extremely active on Social Media during the event.  Personally, I was very impressed with what they did, and asked their Social Media coordinator, Lissette Santana, to answer a few questions about PPL's strategy, successes lessons learned with their Social Media use during this time.

1)       Did you have a set strategy going into the hurricane for using Twitter?

Yes. At PPL, we are committed to sharing information with our customers and listening to their feedback. Social media channels like Twitter and Facebook allow us to do so in real-time. We have had a strategy in place for several years to utilize social media to communicate our initiatives to our various stakeholders.

We started @PPLStormTeam in 2009 to communicate with customers during major outages. Since then, PPL Electric Utilities launched an account (@PPLElectric) to communicate with customers about other topics such as rate changes and energy efficiency. With the growing interest from followers, we merged the accounts to provide one central place for our customers to get all the information they needed regarding PPL Electric Utilities.

During normal operating hours, the account is managed by Customer Communications team. In storm events, the public relations and crisis communications team takes over to provide customers with timely information.

2)     How difficult was it for you to have the information you needed about the power outage to create your tweets?

Although we don't have access to specific account information for each customer, the communications team does have all the information we need to communicate key information that affects large numbers of customers.

Corporate Communications is actively engaged with the utility's management getting information on pre-storm planning and during the storm restoration. We participate on all storm team conference calls, which are held every 4-6 hours, so we know what's happening in the field and what the public can expect. This practice has been in place for many years so we could communicate the company's actions with the media, government officials and the public. Keeping the public informed during events of this nature has always been a top priority for us. The only difference now is that Twitter and Facebook give us another avenue to talk directly with the public, providing them information in real-time and getting their feedback instantaneously.

3)     You received quite a few compliments, but there also received your share of complaints as well.  How did you deal with negative criticism?

One of the tenets of social media is transparency. Accepting negative criticism is part of the process. Sometimes, people just want to vent and we understand that our social media channels provide the perfect avenue for that. If someone is posting rumors and untruths, we will respond to those to set the record straight. Some of the negative criticism we receive is valid and not only do we address it directly, we use it to help us improve our communication and service to customers. One specific instance from this past storm is in reference to the list of ice/water distributors we posted online. It turns out the list was outdated and we heard about it from customers on Twitter. We quickly updated the list and reposted it and will also be changing the process for how the list is compiled in the future.

4)     From beginning to end, how many new followers did you gain?

On the Friday before Irene hit, we had about 550 followers. By Sunday (Aug. 28) we were up to about 1400 followers. We have not heavily promoted the accounts so a lot of the new followers were the result of word of mouth. People were retweeting our posts pre and during the storm, which helped increase our audience.

5)     Any mainstream media attention from your Twitter usage?

Yes. We included information about the Twitter account in every news release and many members of the local media in our service area follow the account. Our use of Twitter was mentioned in a lot of the media coverage, with reports suggesting it as a way for people to stay informed. Several articles in local papers also focused on how we used social media to refute some of the rumors flying around during the storm.

6) Would you consider your Twitter use during the hurricane a success?

While there's always lessons to be learned about how we can improve for the next time, I do consider PPL Electric Utilities' use of social media during the Hurricane Irene restoration to be a success. Our team was working round the clock to keep the public informed. We were able to provide our customers with critical information they needed when many of them were in the dark, literally.  And we were also able to quickly gather feedback from customers that we could share with the utility's management.

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