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Rolling Blackouts Trigger Tempers and Communication Breakdown

February 17, 2011

 

Though the rolling power blackouts initiated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) happened more than two weeks ago, media coverage and complaints continue. We’ve heard everything from updates on Senate committee hearings and questions about grid reliability issues, to accusations of electric market manipulation and corporate apologies.

In the midst of all of this, however, the blackouts also shed light on another important issue: communication protocols. Critics questioned and called attention to ERCOT’s failure to communicate properly and in a timely manner. ERCOT admitted there was a serious breakdown not only within the organization but also they didn’t inform the general public or communicate through the media.

Here are a few important tips and lessons learned that I observed:

  • Plan for a crisis. Consider your target audience and who needs to know what and when. Consider what would happen if you didn’t notify them. If you already have a crisis communications plan in place, reevaluate it and identify improvements.
  • Team up. Assign key people within your organization to be on call if/when a crisis arises. Depending on your company’s size and industry, this team could include people from your public relations, operations, legal and HR departments who are ready to execute the plan at a moment’s notice.
  • Use more channels. While it’s important to issue news releases, post updates on your website and assign spokespersons versed in your key messages for media interviews, it’s also important to reach your target audiences through more instant communication channels such as social media sites, automated messages (phone and/or email) and text messages. We have stronger attachments to our phones than our TVs these days, so communicate with consumers where they’re more likely to receive your message. You simply can’t rely on one source or channel.

While rolling blackouts are not ideal, they do prevent larger, system-wide failures where everyone could end up without power. ERCOT did what it had to do to keep the entire grid from crashing. They moved quickly to avoid a bigger problem. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and hopefully, lessons will be learned as a result, communications will improve in the future and they will be better prepared to face the sweltering summer’s pressure on the grid.

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