Social Media for Crisis MessagingBy Derrill Holly | ECT Staff Writer Published: October 3rd, 2011
From hurricanes and tornadoes to wildfires, co-ops are harnessing the power of social media to reach out to members during times of crisis.
“Ignore using social media for crisis communications at your own peril,” cautioned Chris Powell, director of public relations at Albemarle Electric Membership Corp.
“Members not only expect real-time information, they expect to be able to respond back to it,” said Powell, adding that members always have the option of creating their own sites offering positive or negative feedback. “Within five years I expect social media to be the dominant force in crisis communications.”
Winfall, N.C.,-based Albemarle was one of dozens of electric co-ops battered by Hurricane Irene Aug. 28-Sept. 3.
During several recent disasters, smart phones and other wireless, battery-operated devices kept co-ops connected to their consumer-members through extended outages.
“During Irene, we were able to communicate with our members in a way we never had before,” said Gay Johnson, director of communications for Four County EMC. The Burgaw, N.C.-based co-op engaged in an open dialogue with members waiting to have their power restored.
“Members were able to get quick one-on-one responses to their questions and concerns,” said Johnson. “We also offered updates on outages in their area.”
Many co-op communicators are gaining useful insight about their co-op’s responses during the incidents as members respond to their posts.
“We were better able to report that linemen with chainsaws were on the way” after Irene, said Duane Kanagy, manager of communications and community services for Adams Electric Cooperative, based in Gettysburg, Pa.
Cullman Electric Cooperative used similar tactics when its service territory was ravaged by four separate tornadoes, April 27.
“For several days, using Facebook and Twitter on mobile Web devices was the best way to communicate with both members and the media,” said Brian Lacy, communications manager for the Cullman, Ala.-based co-op.
“For 48 hours, our entire system was without power,” said Lacy. “Over the next 10 days, as we slowly got power back on to everyone, we had more than 2,300 people who were receiving every status update we posted.”
During recent wildfires in Texas, one co-op expanded the scope of its social media operation to include public safety, relief services and other community information.
“We sent dozens of messages a day as a general service to the community,” said Will Holford, manager of public affairs for Bastrop-based Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.
The co-op’s close ties to the community and familiarity with its members’ needs allowed it to tailor its messages accordingly, Holford said.
“People needed to know the locations of emergency shelters, and where they could take their pets and livestock once they evacuated,” said Holford. “They also needed information about donations of food, clothing and other assistance. We were glad to provide it.”