What You’ll Learn

Ian Cope shares thoughts on how utilities can navigate through the wilds of social media, summing up his panel at the 2022 NIC conference.

Guest Speaker

Ian Cope

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


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

Andy Johns: What are some of the ways that you can help navigate social media? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns. I’m your host with WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. I’m joined on this episode by Ian Cope, who is communications director for Grays Harbor PUD. Thanks for joining me, Ian.

Ian Cope: Thanks for having me, Andy.

Andy Johns: So we are here. You may notice from a little bit of the ambiance here in the background that we are at the NIC Conference, which is put on by NWPPA. It’s one of my favorites of the year. We’re really glad to be out here. We’re actually in Anchorage, Alaska, for this one. And Ian is one of our speakers. He’s going to be talking about a session called “Road Maps to Navigating the Wilds of Social Media.” So tell me a little bit, give us a little preview because you’re speaking tomorrow morning. So give us a little preview. What’s the session? What are you trying to get across to folks?

Ian Cope: I think people are recognizing, or have recognized, that social media is a pretty valuable outlet to getting your message across to customers. But it does come with some pitfalls and some issues. Other people being able to go on and comment on what you’re doing oftentimes in real time as you’re trying to do it. And there is, I think, and always going to be a better to not be reactionary, but to actually have some plans put out. A policy, I know it’s going to be one of the things that people talked about in that. Just some of the some of the successes, some of the failures that myself and some of the other speakers have had, and you know, how we overcame those, how we benefited from those and how we can make ourselves better communicators as a result of it. That’s going to be the subject of what we’ll be getting at.

Andy Johns: Sure. So let’s get a little context. How have you seen social media change and evolve over the years? Because, you know, it’s been around a while. It still feels new, but it’s been around 20 years. And you could argue probably before that. But what are some of the ways that you’ve seen in the last few years, kind of the evolution of social media, how folks are using it, how utilities are using it?

Ian Cope: I think when I started at Grays Harbor, we did not have a Facebook page. All we had was Twitter, and it was kind of ideal. And that was back when it was still 140-something characters that you were limited to.

Andy Johns: And about how long ago or what time frame was that?

Ian Cope: This was, gosh, it was right after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. So it was 2014. That’s how I remember things. I started the day after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

Andy Johns: Oh, wow. Okay.

Ian Cope: So yeah, all we had was Twitter at that point, and it was kind of ideal for outage notifications, which was all we used it for. But I noticed that we were being talked about on Facebook. I’m one of those people who has a love/hate relationship with Facebook and social media in general. I think it’s a great tool. I think it’s often misused, but I noticed that we were being talked about, and criticized more than not. And we weren’t out there being involved in it and helping to frame the argument and in many cases defend. So I approached our general manager and our board about starting up a page. We put together a social media committee of departments that would be heavily involved in getting information out there. And after a few months of work, we were able to get a policy in place and put together our page. I think that it has become probably our best outlet for communicating utility information to our customers. As with anything, there are ups and downs to that.

Andy Johns: Sure.

Ian Cope: As a society, if I’m getting a little bit off of a base here, I apologize. But as a society, I think we’ve become a little lazy in that we don’t necessarily do the legwork to find out what it is we’re talking about. So one of the things…

Andy Johns: Sure. People are always looking for that path of least resistance.

Ian Cope: Exactly.

Andy Johns: That’s a little more charitable than lazy. But yeah, I hear you.

Ian Cope: One of the things, but one of the things that really annoys me about social media is that people will just look at what is posted either in comments or what just the headline is without actually clicking on the headline and looking into what it is. Actually reading the article.

Andy Johns: I’ve never heard of anybody do that.

Ian Cope: No, no, no.

Andy Johns: And I certainly never have.

Ian Cope: No, of course not. No, no one ever does that.

Andy Johns: Right.

Ian Cope: I’ve actually had to train myself on that, to get away from, “Oh, you’re doing this,” and having that be the one and only takeaway I’ve got from it. To actually click on it. Do the research.

Andy Johns: Get the context.

Ian Cope: Have an idea of what you’re talking about. I mean, imagine that being an informed user of a platform. So that’s, I think, been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had, is just getting people reacting on just their first take, their first instinct and their first opinion of something rather than actually looking into it and doing the research on it. And that’s that’s probably the thing that annoys me the most about it. And it’s again, that give and take. It’s a great tool for getting information. But at the same time, there are a lot of those challenges that you’re going to face as a result of just kind of where we are societally right now.

Andy Johns: Sure. Have you found anything or maybe some steps to take to combat that a little bit or to get people to read a little bit more than just the headline in the comments? Or have you had any success doing that or still working on it?

Ian Cope: I’m still working on that one there. And once I’ve had success on that, I’ll bottle it and sell it and be able to retire.

Andy Johns: We’ll see you doing the book signing.

Ian Cope: Yeah, exactly. We have had some limited success in that if I see someone who I know commenting, and I know what they’re saying is just flat out wrong. I’ve actually reached out to them. Not in the public, in the comment section, but just reached out to them privately and said, “Hey, just want to let you know that I read this. I saw it first of all. So your comment didn’t just go, by the way, and I wanted to address it with you.” And in one case, I actually had a back and forth with a friend on it who clearly hadn’t read the article and was making some comments that were flat out false. And he went and actually did a retraction online. Or went in and edited his comment to say, “Hey, I just want to let you know, the utility reached out to me, worked with me on this. I was wrong. Sorry. Here’s what actually happened,” and got a couple of extra likes. I mean, I guess in the social media world, getting a couple extra likes is always a good thing.

Andy Johns: Right. Right. And so you reached out to him by phone or email or?

Ian Cope: Actually, it was using Facebook messenger. So but I was able to you know, it’s a small part of customer service, I guess, to be able to see that comment being made. And I’d make a habit of not getting into it in the comment section with customers. I don’t think anything good comes from that.

Andy Johns: It’s tough to win there.

Ian Cope: Yeah, right. But in this case we were able to take their concerns and give them the information. And annoyingly, it was information that had they clicked on the story and actually read it, they would have gotten in the first place.

Andy Johns: Sure, sure.

Ian Cope: You can’t fix that, but you can try to work around it.

Andy Johns: So let’s talk about the policy that you brought up before. And I don’t want us to spend too much time talking about policy on a podcast. There might be people driving. We don’t want people falling asleep everywhere. But in terms of developing that social media policy, tell me what all went into that, what the goal was, what kind of boundaries that needed to set. Tell me a little bit about that process.

Ian Cope: It was a couple of a couple of months that we ended up working on this with our legal team, with members of our energy services department, our HR department. Just trying to basically predict how people were going to use? How the utility was going to use, social media? How people were going to react to it? How people within the utility? We’re using social media. How would they interact with our page? And kind of just try to put out any fires before they were started. And it for the largest for the most part, it ended up working out pretty well. We, you know, set up some criteria for who could post on our page as a spokesperson for the utility. That’s been largely a success. We also set out a criteria, and I don’t know if I’d call it a warning, but a rule if you’re going to go on and criticize the utility there, there could be some blowback on that. So it was.

Andy Johns: You’re talking about internal folks or?

Ian Cope: Yeah.

Andy Johns: So employees, if they, okay, I got you.

Ian Cope: Going on and criticizing utility that it was something that we had to predict. Would people do this?

Andy Johns: Sure.

Ian Cope: And I’ve working in other areas, I’ve seen people do that. And there have been there have been some repercussions for that.

Andy Johns: Probably not a great idea.

Ian Cope: It is not a great idea. But it’s something that we just had to think about.

Andy Johns: Sure. It’s smart.

Ian Cope: How are people using social media? How are they interacting with it? And, you know, like I said, try to find problems before they exist and set up a response to it.

Andy Johns: So part of what I tell people when I’m thinking social media, you know, your website or those places tell people what you do, but really your social media profile can tell people who you are as an organization. So there’s a lot that goes into that. What have you guys done to to try to decide, you know, what does what does the utility sound like? What voice, are we going to be funny? Are we going to be serious? How much thought and effort, and what have you all put in to kind of figuring out who are we on social media?

Ian Cope: We have a I think I have to bounce things off of people that I work with to make sure that this is going to have the right tone. I am a chronic second guesser, so I sit down and I type up something thinking it sounds hilarious, and then I look at it and go, “How is this going to be perceived by someone out there in the community?” If someone’s already got a negative outlook on the utility, they’re probably going to look at it negatively. If someone’s got a positive outlook, they’re going to think it’s hilarious. So I bounce things off of people at the utility whether it be our attorney, which usually I get a negative. You know, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

Andy Johns: Right.

Ian Cope: Which is what that department is supposed to do.

Andy Johns: That’s true. That’s their job.

Ian Cope: Yeah. I mean, if we can be humorous about something, I think that we try to do it. We try to put out a lot of positive stories about the utility. If we go out to to a school, it’s great to see kids faces light up when a lineman comes down and shows them a hot stick or, you know, pops a little plastic helmet on their head and lets them open and close a dead cut out. So putting things like that out there is fantastic. And then other times we have to be serious. We have to be serious when it comes to to power outages, to safety, things like that. So I think it’s just a you have to be able to look at the situation and determine what is the mood of the community at this point. If the entire area is blacked out, obviously, that’s not a time for humor. If it’s a bunch of kids out, you know, walking around a bucket truck and seeing linemen and seeing their faces there, we can have fun with that. So just just having that good judgment and trying to have a good feel for where the community is mood wise. I think it’s a pretty critical skill to develop if you’re starting up a social media page and a policy.

Andy Johns: Sure. Two more things for you. So we talked about it a little bit before we hit the record button, but let’s get the crystal ball out a little bit. Where do you see it going in the future? I know that you guys were kind of in sync, that you guys do Facebook and then Twitter as well, which, you know, what we’ve seen over and over again, that’s where the eyeballs are. TikTok is certainly growing, and there have been other platforms that come and go. And, you know, it can certainly be exhausting to try to be everywhere. You wind up chasing a lot of things. But where do you see it going in terms of whether that’s platforms or style? You know, let’s look into the future? Where do you think in a couple of years at the NIC when we’re getting together for another one of these podcasts, where do you think social media is going for then?

Ian Cope: Well, I don’t see it going away, that’s for sure.

Andy Johns: I wouldn’t think so.

Ian Cope: I don’t think. It’s the toothpaste that’s out of the tube. I don’t think you can put it back in. So I think it’s just a case of using it in a smart way. I mean, we as a utility have done fine with Facebook and Twitter. There are others that love using Instagram. There are others that love using TikTok. I think that in two years, if at a NIC, if you and I sit down, there’s going to be two or three more platforms that, you know, we didn’t see coming right now. Maybe they’re just starting up right now, but they’re going to be ones that probably are looked at as just as valuable. I mean, TikTok, who knew that lip synching a bunch of things and putting up videos like that was going to be such a success. But it probably is going to, it’s going to be capitalized on by someone in the utility world, and people are going to use that as a means of getting it out. I think it’s just whatever works for you and works for your community. In our community Facebook and Twitter right now is fine. I’m not interested in doing Instagram. I’m not interested in doing TikTok. For other communities like in a bigger area, a Seattle or a more urban area that has those areas, or has those…

Andy Johns: Demographics.

Ian Cope: Those demographics. I think maybe those are going to be more popular.

Andy Johns: I would think so. So what have we left out? Or if there’s anything in your presentation that we didn’t get to that you want to share, or what kind of advice do you have for anybody who’s either, because the session talks about somebody, whether you’re a seasoned guide or somebody who’s new on on the social media work, what do we leave out, or what kind of advice do you have for for anybody who’s in your shoes kind of getting into it?

Ian Cope: Get multigenerational. If you can. If you’ve got people at your utility who have social media or social media users that are of all ages, someone like me who’s in their forties and loves Facebook. If you’ve got someone who is on TikTok all the time, talk to them about it. I mean, there are a bunch of people out there who have had success, had failures, had things that have that have worked for them and haven’t worked for them. Maybe just doing it as socially, not as part of their job, but still have had some trials and again some successes that you can learn from. So you’ve got, in our case, a 160 plus employees with that know how. So put together a team and take advantage of the information and the expertise that you have there. Use the network. I mean, an event like the NIC is a great opportunity to sit down and talk with people. We just came out of a, you know, a disaster and crisis management one and listening to the way that some of the utilities here in Alaska utilize social media during storm events. I definitely took something from that that I think I would probably use. So we’ve got a great network in the utility world. We’ve got a great network in the individual utility world of your employees that work with you. Take advantage of it. You don’t know everything, don’t think you do. Go out and learn from others.

Andy Johns: And I would say to you when you’re talking about that generational mix. You mentioned the Gen Z, the millennials, and then those of us more in Gen X, But then don’t sleep on the boomers too. Check in on them and see how they’re using it too.

Ian Cope: No they, and by the way, my parents, you’ve said. I mean, and then that’s definitely something that can be learned from is as well, because that’s a demographic that is relying more heavily now on that sort of communication than they ever did before.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. Well, Ian, thank you for joining me on this episode.

Ian Cope: Thanks for having me.

Andy Johns: He is Ian Cope. He’s the community and government relations director for Grays Harbor PUD. I’m Andy Johns with Pioneer. And until we talk again. Keep telling your story.

Intro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.