Hurricane Irene likely will rank among the top 10 costliest catastrophes in U.S. history, with damage estimates totaling between $7 billion and $10 billion. In addition to the devastation Irene wreaked along the Eastern Seaboard, it marked the first time many electric utilities used social media seriously. As the storm moved up the coast, tweets and Facebook updates flew in an attempt to keep customers informed without depending on phone lines and human customer-service reps.

Communications regarding outage restorations are among the most important ones a utility has with its customers, according to a recent study by Chartwell, an Atlanta-based utility customer-service research and strategy-consulting firm. For Scott Johnson, the group’s director of research, Irene is proving to be a great opportunity to compare utility outage-communication efforts because of the number of companies whose operations the storm affected.

Of course, the priority demand for utility customers with storm-related outages is to simply get their power back on. Second to that, however, is communication—both in reporting outages to the utility and in getting accurate restoration estimates in return.

“We do see that communication during an outage can have a significant impact on customer satisfaction,” Johnson said. “They really want information they can make plans on, and that involves a reasonable estimate of when power is going to be restored.”

Johnson said that overly conservative estimates can be just as frustrating to customers as overly optimistic predictions. A business owner who has just rented a generator or sent employees home based on a utility’s pessimistic forecast may only see lost revenue if power is suddenly restored a day early.

Response in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs in the aftermath of Irene shows how important communications can be to customer satisfaction. Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) are two of the major electricity providers in that region. Pepco came out relatively unscathed in the coverage and hearings that have followed the storm—a reversal from the situation that resulted from snowstorm-related outages last winter—while BGE has been slammed. Maryland’s utility consumer advocacy office, the Office of People’s Counsel, reported a particularly telling statistic: at the height of the storm on Aug. 28, BGE answered 44.7 percent of customer calls within one minute, and 56.5 percent of calls on Aug. 29. Pepco, on the other hand, reached more than 98 percent of callers within that limit on both days.

Perhaps one reason for Pepco’s communications success during the storm is the online outage-reporting capability it offers on its website. An easily accessible, automated outage-reporting and status function is just one click away from the site’s home page. Customers clicking their way to BGE’s “Storms & Outages” page, on the other hand, are told they must call the utility to report their problems. Some 750,000 BGE customers lost power in the storm; that’s a lot of phone calls to answer during peak outage periods.

BGE does maintain a Twitter feed though it is a general, corporate account. Followers are just as likely to get a link to a press release as they are to the latest storm updates.

One of the first large-scale uses of Twitter’s 140-character messaging service was by Public Service New Hampshire (PSNH) during a December 2008 ice storm, when the company’s communications department turned to an existing corporate feed to disseminate outage-restoration information. Within a few hours, the Twitter feed gained almost 1,800 followers.

The company’s response to these followers demonstrates a second basic principle: successful corporate communications should be a two-way street. When PSNH feed followers asked for an outage map, the utility responded with their progress on that task, and even reacted positively to a tech-savvy customer’s offer of assistance in putting such a map together.

“Utilities need to give the customer some kind of feedback” that they are being heard in social media interactions,” Johnson said. “There are some utilities that get back to every single customer.”

However, Twitter is not the only social-media strategy utilities are using today. For example, Detroit Edison recently joined the ranks of utilities offering an outage-reporting app for iPhones (an Android version is in the works). As Patrick Duffy, who manages the company’s online customer-service efforts, noted, smart phones may be the only operational communications tool available to customers in an outage, especially as more folks drop traditional landlines in favor of cell phones or voice over Internet protocol options.

“With all this technology use, we’re actually more isolated,” he said.

Incorporating the global positioning systems (GPS) now becoming prevalent in fleet dispatch and management operations could be next, so customers could, for example, see where crews are currently active. However, as Johnson said, desperate customers could use the data to track down crews, which could lead to further restoration delays.

“Changing the business process can be a challenging issue. There’s a lot of work that has to be done with the crews,” he said. “That’s, in many cases, a multiyear process.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.