During a crisis, remember to be human

Storm Hair Don't CareAfter Hurricane Florence swept across the Carolinas in 2018, a member services representative at Tideland EMC, North Carolina, suggested using the phrase, “Storm Hair, Don’t Care” on shirts for behind-the-scenes employees.

The message hit home for thousands of utility staff who answer phones and support operations around the clock for public power utilities. During a crisis—whether it’s an extended outage after a storm or a shift in operations to fight a pandemic—sleep and hygiene take a hit. Humor helps.

To understand how an extended crisis impacts communicators, we interviewed #UtilityPioneers in our award-winning eBook, Coping with a Crisis.

Two of the findings ring true in today’s social-distancing reality.

Make time to breathe, and scout (from a distance) for powerful stories.

Make Time to Breathe

Coping with a 3- or 4-day outage is very different from an outage (or stay-at-home order) stretching over weeks or months. After the initial burst of adrenaline fades, you keep going. And going. And going.

Candace Croft, communications coordinator at West Florida Electric Cooperative, Florida, juggled communications with no power or internet access when Hurricane Michael hit.

“You’re going to need a break,” Candace says. “There were several days I went outside and cried. Our members were so upset, and you can’t do anything for them except tell them, ‘I’m sorry. We know, but we’re doing all we can.’ It was a very emotional and a hard time for everybody.”

Give yourself time each day to breathe. Use Facebook Messenger to set consumer expectations, then do what you reasonably can each day. Remind consumers and staff that you are all in this together.

Taking time for yourself is doubly important during the pandemic. Schools across the nation are closed through the end of April or longer. On top of working at the utility, many communicators are tackling teaching at home, too, or taking time off to watch younger children.

Many utilities are focusing on COVID-19 messaging about closed lobbies, no late fees, alternate payment methods, and delayed disconnects. Home energy efficiency messages such as the ones we provide through Pioneer Social are critical. Once utilities reinstate disconnects, there will be a lot of people struggling to pay bills and taking it out on utilities.

Take it one day at a time.
We’re all in this together.

Scout for Powerful Stories

Pioneer member Kristin Evans, vice president of communications at Florida’s Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative, lost power to all of her members during Hurricane Michael. She scouted for powerful stories to unite staff and members during the long restoration process.

“In your personal life, you’re dealing with the same things the members are,” Kristin says.
“It’s a time to come together.”

One Gulf Coast Electric lineman, Jason Curry, lost his home in the storm. His young son didn’t see his father for four days. An image captured their emotional reunion. The father-son hug was shared on Facebook more than a thousand times.

“Situations like Michael bring out the best in people and the worst,” Kristin says. “People can get very selfish and only think about their situation. Show the sacrifices [utility] people are making. People need to hear the softer side, the human side, of it.”

What stories can we share during the pandemic?

Community connections are key. Lineworkers at Coffeyville Municipal Light & Power, Kansas, joined a community chalk art movement. Many #UtilityPioneers are using videos from managers and pictures of local utility staff to personalize messages. In Oregon, Pioneer member Northern Wasco County PUD spotlights employees in the field and in empty offices making hearts with their hands.

different images of employees making hearts with their hands

A set of social graphics from People’s Electric Cooperative, Oklahoma, shows utility staff taking measures to stay healthy and keep power flowing, while Horry Electric Cooperative, South Carolina, showed linemen on the job following social distancing guidelines.

employees taking social distancing measures

utility employees taking social distancing measures

We’re collecting examples of utility COVID-19 messaging in this DropBox folder. We’ll add to it as we go to help you brainstorm ideas for your channels.

How Will You Respond to a Crisis?

During an extended crisis like the one we are facing as a nation today, the best thing we can do is be there for each other. Over the last month, we wrote a leadership editorial and created social media and office graphics to help you communicate about Covid-19. Our eBook, Coping with a Crisis, offers insights from battle-tested communicators who survived losing critical communication channels. Get sample communication plans, checklists and templates to help you weather this storm.

We want to showcase your stories on this blog. How you are helping consumers and responding to COVID-19? Add your tips and stories below or email Megan.

We may be apart, but we’ll get through this together.