woman talking with 2 men
This post by a lineworker sparked a negative backlash against the utility.

While working in the field, one of your lineworkers finds an electrocuted bobcat hanging from a pole. Will he focus on fixing the problem or will he take a few pictures first?

If you are not training staff on the proper use of social media, be prepared for a crisis.

In 2017, an electric co-op lineworker in Kansas found a dead bobcat on the lines. He took 4 pictures on his mobile phone and posted them to his personal Facebook feed with the caption, “Cool find this morning!”

The pictures went viral. Within 3 days the post was shared more than 65,500 times. More than 10,000 comments flooded his publicly available feed.

The lineworker had not realized he could limit his posts to friends and family. Since he linked to his place of work, the angry comments quickly spread to the co-op’s Facebook page.

“I’m not sure your employees’ “cool find” at work reflects well on your company,” messaged one of the many people upset by the images.

Replace the bobcat in this scenario with dead raptors, snakes, raccoons, or any number of other animals. Odds are one of your staff has taken a picture of something unusual seen during work hours. Do you have the training and a solid social media policy in place to protect your utility’s online reputation?

Social Challenge

The Pew Research Center found 34% of workers used social media to take a mental break from work. Over a quarter of staff use social media to connect with friends or family at work. Both activities impact productivity.

Social media sparks distractions. A suite of tools such as TodoBook and Newsfeed Burner are one way individuals meet the challenge. Why leave it up to self-control? These tools only let you see your social feed after you accomplish specific tasks or a set period of time has passed.

But not all social media use during work hours is personal. The same study found 20% of workers use social media to help solve problems at work. 17% use it to learn more about someone they work with, while 12% of staff ask work-related questions of people both outside and inside the organization. Why use email when you can use Facebook Messenger?

These workplace trends leave companies with several social media policy options: embrace social connections, limit them, or try to find a happy medium. Here’s how some utilities are meeting the challenge.

Policy Practices

Energy Northwest opted to embrace staff’s use of social media in support of the agency.

“Energy Northwest. .. encourages employees to use social media in a personal capacity as a way to reach out and share with friends and communities,” states the agency’s policy.

When staff access social media with work equipment, including the network, the activity will be monitored. And staff can only use social media during work hours if they are doing something business-related.

Clear guidelines help employees understand what they can and cannot say. They must clearly state they work for Energy Northwest. Training for all 1,000+ staff covers how to talk about the agency online and respect for confidential information. And the training makes it clear that harassment, retaliation, or discrimination between co-workers may result in termination—whether staff are on or off the clock.

In Mississippi, the team at Coast Electric Power Asso­ciation took a different approach. The co-op policy clearly states no pictures, audio, or video may be taken or posted during working hours. The only exception is work outlined in an employee’s job duties and the type of communication covered by the National Labor Board (health and safety issues).

But the co-op also recognizes the value of staff eyes across many social platforms. They encourage staff to scout for compliments or criticisms.

“Even if you are not an official spokesperson for the cooperative, you are one of our most vital assets for monitoring the social media landscape,” the policy states. Staff are encouraged to forward any mentions to the co-op’s public relations team, and resist responding.

In contrast to Energy Northwest’s approach, Coast Electric only lets the co-op spokesperson speak on behalf of the utility. Other staff must clearly state any views are their own and do not represent the views of Coast Electric. Staff also may not link personal pages to the co-op—a simple step that could have helped protect one Kansas co-op’s online reputation.

Social Staff Training

After watching the social media fallout after the bobcat picture was shared, another Kansas utility, Victory Electric Cooperative, created an all-staff social media training session. The session covers the bobcat scenario, highlighting the impact of the post across all departments. But it takes the message a step further.

Staff learn about the co-op’s legal requirements per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Bald/Golden Eagle Protection Act, and other endangered animal legal guidelines. Pictures are shared of local protected animals, such as the Eastern Spotted Skunk and Western Hognose Snake.

“If an employee were to post a picture of an electro­cuted snake or bird that happened to be on the protected list, there could be serious legal consequences for the co-op if it’s seen by an agency official and had not been reported,” explains Jerri Imgarten, Victory Electric’s vice president of communications.

Staff are encouraged to take pictures at work, as long as they follow safe work practices. Staff are also encouraged to use common sense in different situations, including never using a phone while doing hot work.

Utility staff in other states took notice of the bobcat backlash, too. At NWPPA’s Northwest Communications & Energy Innovations Conference in September, a panel of utility executives talked about the importance of communication and social media training.

“When the guy in Kansas found the bobcat on the line, there was a horrible, horrible backlash against him, the co-op, and his family,” said Scott Peters, chief executive officer at Columbia REA in Walla Walla, Wash. “We took time to talk about that in our staff meetings.

“We can’t tell staff what they can and can’t post on personal social media. All we can do is share what we know the reactions might be, talk about best practices, and what we’d like staff to do.”

Rollie Miller, general manager at Vigilante Electric Cooperative in Whitehall, Montana, sent all but 3 of his staff to a full day of communication training through his statewide association.

“They learned how your word choice and body language mat­ters,” said Miller. “You can’t train people for every situation; I ask staff to focus on being honest and respectful when responding to comments.”

Pair Policy with Training

The details are up to you, but your utility should work with a lawyer to develop a comprehensive social media policy. Remember that posting the wrong thing online could get the utility and you in legal trouble; damage the utility’s online reputation, and cost you your job.

While essential, a policy alone will not protect your utility’s online reputation. Pair your policy with annual staff training. Share the bobcat scenario as a cautionary tale to make sure your staff know the power of personal posts. Download Victory Electric’s sample presentation here. And—if it fits with your policy—find ways to turn your staff’s social media activity into a powerful engagement tool for your utility.

This article originally ran in the November 2018 issue of NWPPA‘s Bulletin member magazine.