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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mea Culpas and Apologies Can Be Too Little, Too Late

Thomas H. Graham, regional president of Washington, DC region utility Pepco, has had a rough few days trying to restore power since a mammoth summer storm caused hundreds of thousands of electric outages on July 25. Some outages have continued for most of the ensuing week.

This blackout comes six months after another series of extended outages last Winter during three unusually huge winter storms in the space of a couple of weeks. Graham has been all over the news, apologizing for everything from the inability to restore power to an error-prone electronic public alert and response system that failed miserably at crunch time. News outlets have been broadcasting unflattering power outage updates every few minutes for days, and reiterating the litany of mistakes by Pepco as it disseminated information that was wrong. http://bit.ly/aGdGco

A utility is not a corporation, and isn't accountable to customers and shareholders the same way a publicly-traded business is. And a natual event such as a violent storm is not the utility's responsibilitty. But proper and accurate response and risk management are because a utility delivers critical municipal services that people rely on all the time. If recent blogs and online news comments are any indication, an even bigger hurdle for Pepco than turning the power back on will be regaining the trust of customers who feel no sympathy at all, apology or not. Here's one of hundreds such comments:

"My neighborhood still does not have power. My frustration is not only with Pepco's failure to address long-standing issues such as burying power lines, but their incredibly poor, inaccurate and possibly dishonest response to customer service. I believe that significantly more households are without power than their on-line system shows as it does not reflect the reality in our neighborhood."

The only mitigating factoid that Graham and Pepco spokesmen have been able to get out that has resonated with the media is that the Washington, DC region has the third largest area in the country covered by trees after Atlanta, GA and Portland, OR. They also say they have brought in assistance from surrounding counties and states, and are working around-the-clock. Yet many callers to radio stations keep saying they have yet to see a utility truck.

Pepco isn’t ducking the torrent of criticism. Besides Graham’s me culpa, a Pepco spokesman posted the following item in a comment section in the Washington Post filled with blistering attacks against the utility: “I understand your frustrations. Our number one priority is to restore customers' power as quickly and safely as possible. Our crews have and will continue to work 24/7 until all customers' power is restored. Having said that, we also recognize that there was a malfunction in our ETR reporting system since Sunday. This glitch has been fixed and never affected the speed or efficiency of the power restoration efforts of our crews. I will continue posting updates as I receive them @PepcoConnect on Twitter. Best, Andre (Pepco Social Media Representative)”

At CommCore we tell our clients that accurate information and transparency are essential to effective crisis communications. We also tell them that apologizing for what happened in the past – if appropriate in the first place – will still only go so far. Yes, people want empathy. But what affected customers and stakeholders want to hear most in a crisis is first what you are DOING about the problem and when, and secondly what you WILL DO to try and prevent it from happening again. Moving the discussion to promises about future courses of action presents an opportunity to change public engagement from criticism looking backward, to collaborating on finding solutions going forward.

The new challenge, then, will be to deliver on those promises. For the moment, Pepco appears to be paying for the public’s perception that it failed to deliver on such promises in the past.

What communications lessons can you draw from Pepco’s predicament and response?

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