What You’ll Learn

Extreme weather and the state’s remoteness amplify any crisis that may come up in Alaska. That means Meadow Bailey and the Golden Valley Electric Association team have to be prepared. What can other communicators learn from their preparation?

Guest Speaker

Meadow Bailey

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What can utilities in Alaska teach us about responding to crisis? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Meadow Bailey, who is the director of External Affairs and Public Relations at Golden Valley Electric Association. Meadow, thank you for joining me.

Meadow Bailey: Andy, thank you so much for letting me come. I always love the opportunity to talk about communication in general, and I tend to really have a passion for crisis communication.

Andy Johns: Excellent.

Meadow Bailey: So you might not get rid of me for a while. Just kidding.

Andy Johns: Excellent. And you had a chance to share some of that knowledge with folks at this session. Once again, we’re recording this episode at the NIC, the NWPPA’s conference here in Anchorage, Alaska. Thank you for sharing Alaska with us, first and foremost.

Andy Johns: Yeah, and welcome.

Andy Johns: Yeah, it’s fantastic up here.

Meadow Bailey: We rolled out some sun for the past 24 hours or so.

Andy Johns: Yeah, it’s been nice.

Meadow Bailey: You’ve got a little rain too, so you got to see a couple of different weather patterns that rolled through.

Andy Johns: Right. Right. I think those are the only two weather patterns I’d like to see before we get out of here. So don’t bring anything heavier.

Meadow Bailey: Funny you say that. There’s rumors of snow up north tonight.

Andy Johns: Oh, interesting. Well, what I thought we’d talk about on this episode, you have two sessions from this conference where you’re talking about crisis communications. And I’d like to to get into that a little bit. Like I said, we were recording here at the NIC, so like we always say, any noises or extraneous noise you hear, is not background noise, it’s ambiance because we’re here right at the center…

Meadow Bailey: And what you’re hearing is communicators communicating in the background.

Andy Johns: You know, it turns out that’s what they do.

Meadow Bailey: Yeah. Yeah.

Andy Johns: So, well, go ahead and give us a top line for those who weren’t able to attend the this conference or your session in particular, what were some of the main themes you were hoping to get across in the two sessions on crisis communications?

Meadow Bailey: Well, really, the first session that we did, and I was actually part of a panel which was really fun for me, was to talk about some of the unique situations that we face in Alaska and then some of the challenges that come and really the kind of location and the fact that we don’t have, even though redundancy is such a buzzword in the electric industry, really redundancy is not something that is in place in the infrastructure in Alaska. So anything like the redundancy issues that we see from an industry perspective, you also see like with roads, there’s not multiple roads in or out of a location. So crisis when it hits, it tends to affect everybody within a location. And so we just talked about some, you know, through some of those situations what some best practices were that we’d learned over time. And the opportunity really was to be able to collaborate and to share what we’ve learned, to hear from other people as well and to share, you know, really those what worked best. And your hope is always that somebody gets one nugget of information that’s really inspiring to them that they take away.

Andy Johns: You’ve got so many things going against you up here. You’ve got not just the redundancy issues, or lack thereof that you were talking about. You’ve got space. You’ve got the extreme conditions. It can be…

Meadow Bailey: Absolutely.

Andy Johns: There’s a lot that goes into it. I imagine your crisis book is going to be a little thicker than some of the folks maybe in the lower 48.

Meadow Bailey: Well, and one of the things we kind of talked about is that you really, and we’ve definitely seen this, is you can’t necessarily prepare for every crisis, but there’s always things that you can do to be prepared, which is the tenets of good communication anyways. Like just making sure responsive, making sure the information that you’re sharing is accurate, making sure that you’re acknowledging other people who are affected or impacted. And one of the big, the key takeaways we really had was focusing on being responsive, even if you don’t have all of the information. So trying to put out a statement within the first 30 minutes, even if it doesn’t include all of the details, but acknowledge that you’re aware of the situation of whatever happened and that you are working to gather more information, and you’ll update when you have that information or if you can give a time frame to it, you know, within the next 30 minutes, within the next hour. Sometimes that’s really hard to do, though, but still just having a presence in that space and acknowledging that you’re aware of what’s going on, that gives a lot of assurance to people. That’s really what they want to know at first. Then they’re going to want to – and that you’re responding – then they’re going to want to know that you’re going to share more information in details. Maybe what the cause is, how widespread, and if you’re talking about an outage, how widespread it might be.

Andy Johns: So it sounds like while the challenges might be different or ratcheted up a little bit, a lot of the fundamentals are going to be the same whether somebody’s up here or down in the lower 48.

Meadow Bailey: Yeah, one of the things that’s unique too, and I’ll just kind of which is a side note really, is that a lot of the things that we used to experience historically have changed within the past ten or 15 years in Alaska. We are really on the edge of the kind of adjustments in climate that we’re seeing. And so we tend to have some new patterns that are coming through. We had a windstorm that happened this year. It was one of the summer. We’re not traditionally a place in the interior where I’m located. It’s not traditionally a place that had high winds. So we had a windstorm that came through and caused more damage than anyone had seen in 20 years. It started really very mildly, and we really didn’t understand what was unfolding in front of us. That was followed by just last winter, we had kind of a real record storm that was a heavy snowfall, followed by rain. Which when you have rain in the middle of winter in Alaska, it’s one of the most difficult situations to recover from because everything is coated with ice. And it usually temperatures drop pretty dramatically. And so you’ve got this ice that’s everywhere. It caused a lot of trees to break. It caused damage to poles. Travel was really hard. It was difficult to get through the heavy snow and that thick crust of ice, let alone just the fact that the roads were so treacherous from all of that, from the ice, how slippery they were. So we’ve seen some things that are unique and that are new within the state. And what we’re trying to do is really look at our system and see how can we create some kind of resiliency and redundancy within our infrastructure.

Andy Johns: Got it. And then come up with ways to to tell that story same thing like always.

Meadow Bailey: Yes, absolutely.

Andy Johns: So the other discussion that you are part of the breakout session, “Getting Through the Storm: How to Successfully Manage a Crisis.” What was some of the discussion like? And we’ve got so many good communicators here. It’s been really interesting to hear the discussions as well and what folks have said. So what were some of the other things you picked up from either of the sessions?

Meadow Bailey: Well, and that, the afternoon session that we did where we were talking about, you know, really what, we shared ten key takeaways of getting through a storm. And really the focus there was on, of course, preparation. And I’ve always said I’m not really a big fan of saying, you know, you have like a 20 page crisis communication plan, but having elements that are going to support you wherever you’re at when you’re in a crisis situation. So having prepared messages, knowing what you’re going to say, having those approved and having some redundancy with those messages. So always talking about safety, always talking about people being responsive, always showing compassion and care for your community, those are going to, you’re going to use those kinds of elements in everything that you talk about. And then being quick with your response. Sharing as much information that is verified as quickly as you can. So really we start out by kind of focusing on that. And then we talked about some rural specific kind of tactics more for being successful in doing that.

Andy Johns: Got it. So what are some things that you would give advice to folks if they’re looking at it and maybe they already have a 20 page plan you’re talking about, or maybe they maybe they don’t. But when you’ve got somebody maybe who’s a new communicator or somebody who’s just going through and thinking about, “Okay, we probably need to update what we’ve got here,” where do you even start?

Meadow Bailey: Well, first you would start by identifying your roles. Who is going to sit in what seat and what role are you expecting them to fill? And really, you’re going to have obviously operations. You’re probably going to have IT involved for support. You’re going to have supply. So there’s some general seats. You have identified the first person that would be in that. We always ask that you identify at least one backup, sometimes two. If it’s a longer situation, you’re going to need more support. You’re going to need people that you can switch out with. In addition to that, the idea of having these key messages that you have ready to go and are able to respond with really quickly, that’s really important. We also really advocate for having some some kind of a graphic that you can share immediately. We put everything on the platform Canva. It’s something. There’s an app for it. You can access it from your phone. It’s very easy to work with. We can make slight adjustments on the go if we need to, and that’s been a nice, you know, as long as you have some kind of connectivity. We also share those, have those graphics usually on our phone, but something wherever you’re at, you’re still able to provide a quick update. For us, in Alaska, Facebook is really the platform of choice so far. It’ll be interesting. There’s kind of seems to be TikTok coming along and Instagram, but that so far has not taken the place of Facebook. And so we tend to focus more on sharing our messages out via Facebook.

Andy Johns: How does the lack of redundancy like you talked about, you know, you mentioned having them on your phone. I know there are some more remote spots of the state where that may not do you a lot of good.

Meadow Bailey: Yeah.

Andy Johns: What do you think that, you know, has that made you had to step up the game a little bit where just knowing that there may not be while I know the state association, everybody works together well, it might be a long way for some of the other folks, the co-op folks in the state to help out or just there’s the space that we’re talking about. Have there been some extra steps that you guys have to take to be extra prepared due to that lack of redundancy or the the distances involved?

Meadow Bailey: Well, I think one of the things that we’ve really done is worked on taking any of our messaging that we have. And this is assuming, of course, that you have some kind of a connection so that you’re able to get online. And if you weren’t, we would work to try to find some other way to reach out and share information. But trying to give information as quickly as they can to our members and not necessarily segmenting our members. Like we don’t communicate with media different than we do our our general members. We’ll do interviews and those kinds of things, but we’re pushing out information as quickly as we can via Facebook, via email, and we tend to give all of that, the same information we would to a reporter, we’re going to give to our members. And part of that is because there’s not necessarily the same presence, media presence, in Alaska and in some of the more rural communities as there would be in a more urban population.

Andy Johns: Sure, sure. So I’ve been curious to ask, but what are some of the more unusual things you have seen in your time? And when it talks about a crisis, what how far are the extremes here that you’re dealing with on a somewhat,  I won’t say regular basis, but that you’ve dealt with in your time here?

Meadow Bailey: Well, I’ll start with, you know, from a utility perspective being where I work now. But before this I worked with the Alaska Department of Transportation, so I have a couple that I’ll share from that.

Andy Johns: I would imagine so.

Meadow Bailey: But really, ours are high windstorms that are really unique now. It’s not something that we experienced previously. This idea of having heavy winter rains that come on usually on top of a heavy snowfall, and then are followed by really cold temperatures. That’s always a situation that makes for really challenging conditions. And for our members as power goes out to, you know, kind of these smaller pockets of homes that are harder for us to reach, and so we really stress the importance of all of our members being prepared so that those kind of things that are slightly different, abnormal weather patterns, we’re seeing more of those. We do have wildfires as well. We also, when I worked with the Department of Transportation, really the last thing that I had dealt with there was when we had the beginning of COVID in Alaska. The airports are run by the state. And so we were really one of the first, the repatriation flights, that were coming over. And so we had one of the first ones come through Anchorage International Airport. I was actually, I feel like a lot of these crisis that happen, I’m usually like in Mexico, but I happened to be in Mexico when that flight was going to happen. We were just starting to talk about COVID. No one knew what was really going to happen, so it can also be a global pandemic. We’ve had avalanches. We’ve had these incredible like avalanches that have caused dams that caused a flood. And so flooding events, of course, I just usually any kind of a disaster in Alaska is going to be big. It’s going to be longer. While it might affect fewer people, it’s usually fairly dramatic, but you’re always going to expect those people to be somewhat prepared. I mean, that’s kind of the nature of Alaska, is if you’re going to live here, you’re going to be prepared for just about anything, and you’re going to have a certain independent streak. So we really stress the importance of people being prepared.

Andy Johns: Definitely. The question everybody is wondering to ask. I know that there’s a lot of times in the lower 48 outages can be caused by a wildlife.

Meadow Bailey: I love that you said the lower 48. It’s like you’re a local already. Yes.

Andy Johns: Uh, definitely not. But, wildlife is involved in some of those outages in the lower 48. So, uh, the question everybody’s wondering and wanting to ask, how does wildlife play a role, maybe not in a full blown crisis, but in some of the outages?

Meadow Bailey: We do have outages. Actually, as I was just getting ready to sit down with you, I was dealing with an outage that was at a school. It was caused by a squirrel, and so squirrels.

Andy Johns: We have those down in Tennessee.

Meadow Bailey: Yeah, that’s universal.

Andy Johns: I’ve heard of those.

Meadow Bailey: Yes. So squirrels and birds tend to be the biggest outages causing, you know, kind of wildlife things. And that happens very regularly, actually. Yeah.

Andy Johns: Got it. Last thing for you here. What advice would you have for somebody who is either in your shoes where you are now or, you know, just starting the process of, “Hey, we need to be prepared for this kind of stuff.” Most most utilities do a good job of that. But, you know, what advice would you have for somebody who’s starting down that path?

Meadow Bailey: Well, I’d say most utilities do a really phenomenal job of that, and part of it is because outages and crisis is really just a kind of part of your day to day operation.

Andy Johns: Right.

Meadow Bailey: It’s not necessarily the really large sized ones, but there’s always, you’re always having a chance to practice. The things I’d really emphasize is being prepared. So making sure you have identified those roles and you understand what your role is. As the communicator, are you going to be pushing messages out, you know, via Facebook, via email, whatever those platforms are? And those ways that you’re going to communicate with people work, use those on a daily basis. So make those the methods of communication and your general outreach so that your public knows where to go for their information. They know that’s where you’re going to share. They’re used to your tone. They trust you. And that also you’re really familiar with those platforms because during a crisis, you’re not going to try to learn a new platform or figure out a password. You don’t have time. You’re kind of, you’re really focused on what these messages are going to be.

Andy Johns: Perfect. I think that’s good advice all the way around. And you even answered some of my weird lower 48 state questions about Alaska. So, Meadow, thanks so much for joining me.

Meadow Bailey: Thank you. Yeah, it was a pleasure, Andy. I really appreciate it.

Andy Johns: She is Meadow Bailey. She is the director of external affairs and public relations at Golden Valley Electric Association. I am Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.