It’s a good time to dust off your communications plan.

Given the round-the-clock realities of modern newsgathering, and the incessant tweeting and nattering of social media outlets, modern power providers have to ensure that their communications operations not only are responsive to continuous demands, but are equipped to weather a crisis.

“During an event or emergency, we used to gear our messaging for the news cycle — providing updates for the morning news, at noon and at five,” recalls Steve Corson, an external communications specialist with Portland General Electric (PGE). “That no longer applies; today it’s continuous.”

Corson said that PGE, which supplies 840,000 customers in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley and metropolitan Portland, enjoys a bit of a natural advantage planning for events such as weather outages. “We experience ‘normal disaster’ events such as wind or rain storms that come through almost every year,” he said. “We prepare and mobilize for those events as we would for a larger disaster. It keeps us mindful and prepared for mobilizing our resources.”

we’re talking to customers who, in turn, can become “reporters” in the general sense. Therefore, not only do we always have to be transparent in communications, the speed of response is just as important.

“Whether it’s wind, ice storms, a manmade incident or the oft-discussed Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, we want to be as prepared as possible.” Corson added that PGE’s risk management, business continuity and communications efforts now incorporate customer, news media and general public outreach on social media.

Basic plan components

In a traditional emergency communications plan, a company:

  • Specifies roles and launches quickly.
  • Briefs senior management on the situation.
  • Identifies and briefs the company spokesperson of the situation.
  • Prepares and issues company statements to the media and other organizations.
  • Organizes and facilitates broadcast media coverage.
  • Communicates situation information and procedural instructions to employees and other stakeholders.
  • Communicates with employee families and the local community.
  • Continually adapts to changing events associated with the emergency.

Today, we add a new, key function:

  • Creates messages for social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and the company website. It continually updates those messages and responds to inquiries.


What’s different in today’s emergency communications is the number of audiences and message platforms. “When we talk audiences, we actually need to interact with just about everyone in our service area, even for routine outage events,” Corson said.

In a risk communications plan, these audiences include:

  • Customers
  • Those impacted by the incident and their families
  • Employees and their families
  • News media
  • Community — especially neighbors living in or near an impacted area
  • Company management, directors and investors
  • Elected officials, regulators and other government authorities
  • Suppliers

At PGE, its corporate communications shop manages the development of messages and materials for customers, employees, reporters, social media and the general public. “With social media, audience expectations have evolved in terms of information frequency and interactive capability,” Corson said. “As time goes by, we’ll need to increase the integration of our social media into our customer contact operations for reporting outages and where downed wires are located.”

Monitoring social media

Social media continues to evolve and grow. As of the first quarter of 2015, Twitter averaged 236 million monthly active users, while Facebook totals 1.19 billion monthly users (728 million daily users). Therefore, it behooves every company to have people monitoring what’s being said about their brand.

“Currently, it’s mostly reactive for routine outage activity, but we do monitor social media,” Corson said. “It’s funny — you get messages over Twitter at 10 p.m. and the sender expects someone to be there to answer. That goes for both reporters and the public. Plus, now we’re talking to customers who, in turn, can become “reporters” in the general sense. Therefore, not only do we always have to be transparent in communications, the speed of response is just as important.”

Social media as a risk management tool

Corson remarked that his communications team has been gaining experience in using Twitter — a platform that didn’t exist not too long ago. “Our twitter handle is @PortlandGeneral and we monitor it daily,” he said. “We use it to tweet about our regular initiatives, such as energy efficiency and safety tips. But we also monitor it for outages. It goes in both directions: our customers can ask questions, report downed wires, and inquire about which department does what.”

It’s also an effective way to blast out information to both the public and reporters. PGE can update users on outages, power restoration progress and information about weather forecasts. When there’s a hot weather alert, PGE can share information and answer inquiries on saving energy and keeping homes cool.

“In addition to using Twitter and Facebook for routine communications, we also use them during emergencies,” Corson said. “Other utilities have demonstrated social media’s effectiveness. For example San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) had a major transmission failure, leaving more than a million customers without power. They used Twitter when their other lines of communications were unavailable.”

Using platforms such as its website and Facebook, PGE can put out more information than ever before. For example, the ability to update an online outage map and list areas where outages are occurring are valuable additions to the company’s communications arsenal.

Flexibility and training is key

Corson is part of a media team comprised of three professionals who are focused on responding to journalists and on executing broader external communications efforts. PGE also has a dedicated brand and digital strategy team that focuses on social media and direct customer channels, and a group specializing in employee communications — a critical component in responding to any emergency.

“The important thing is flexibility and training,” Corson said. “During a storm system or other emergency, we have a contingency plan where we use a larger number of employees to help monitor social media. For example, our employee communications specialists may serve as public information officers as well, using messages developed by our incident command and corporate communications departments.”

“Between our website and social media, the number of media calls during outages have really fallen off the past few years,” Corson said. “Reporters still want a quote or a sound bite, but they can get most of the real-time information themselves online.”

How to integrate social media into your emergency plan

Consultant Heidi Cohen, president of Riverside Marketing Strategies, developed a helpful, seven-step Social Media Emergency Checklist. In summary:

  1. Make sure you have an emergency communications plan in the first place. Determine where and when you’ll integrate social media into your overall communications to ensure that it is effective and consistent.
  2. Build your social media presence before you need it. Make sure you have a Facebook, Twitter account and website that can be updated with the latest news. Promote your presence in customer communications and related hashtags so that your constituents know where to turn in an emergency.
  3. Develop a set of policies around your social media interactions. The middle of an emergency isn’t the time to consider who can access various social media platforms and what they can post. At a minimum, create a set of social media guidelines, including policies around comments, personal data and access. Outline what information and comments will be deleted.
  4. Have a chain of command and backups in place. Determine who from your customer-facing units, communications and senior management needs to be contacted, as well as their backups. This list must be updated with personal mobile phone numbers and emails. Consider who will be contacted during off hours, weekends and holidays.
  5. Back up your systems. Ensure that you can restore your systems if power goes out in an emergency. Make sure you practice bringing your system back. Can you access your systems remotely to keep them going?
  6. Monitor the situation. Use your social media platforms to project a calm, helpful message.
  7. Create useful information to help your target audience. When possible, develop content in advance and work together with other local organizations to ensure that you’re not providing contradictory information.