Meg Matt, contributing editor
How do 350 employees battle four hurricanes in six weeks? How does an electric cooperative, responsible for maintaining 6,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines spanning five counties, communicate to its customers when 98 percent of them are without power? According to LCEC, one of the country’s largest electric cooperatives, the answer is a well-executed crisis communications plan.
Based in North Fort Myers, Florida, LCEC had the opportunity to put its plan to the test when Hurricane Charley came to town. The first hurricane would prove to be the most destructive to LCEC’s customers. “Charley came right at us,” said Karen Ryan, public relations manager for the cooperative. “Our response to weather-related events can be scaled based on the severity of the storm. We have a lot of practice when the summer storm season is upon us, but working through four hurricanes tested our plan, our employees and our customers.”
HR manager does the laundry
The foundation of any communications plan is to put out accurate information as quickly as possible to internal and external audiences. LCEC’s Employee Communications and Media Relations Hurricane Plan is a model of practical simplicity. It leaves no doubt as to who does what and when they do it.
The plan starts cranking up when a hurricane advisory is issued by the National Weather Service. “We begin preparing our internal and external emergency messages as soon as the advisory is issued,” said Ryan. “These messages alert the media that we are setting up our communications center, and notify employees that they need to assume their emergency responsibilities. Every employee has a job to do during a hurricane. For example, our HR manager was responsible for the laundry. We had 600 crews working, and they would go through four or five shirts a day. So the laundry crew would make daily runs to collect dirty laundry and get it washed, dried and returned. Our finance and accounting people were in charge of delivering food and materials to the field, and our CFO was stationed on Sanibel Island to handle media interviews.”
a credible relationship with the media
While the service restoration teams respond as soon as conditions are deemed safe, Ryan and her team work on getting pertinent information out to the media, customers and employees at frequent intervals. “We work hard to have a credible relationship with our media,” said Ryan. “Our executive management met every two hours to give a briefing to the committee chairs. This ensured we were all on the same page when it was time to give updates.” She added that photo opportunities were developed twice a day for the press, and at one point they were escorted into LCEC’s operations center to see the team in action.
“Our work paid off in that the media supported us throughout the entire restoration process,” said Ryan. “I know of one utility that had some communications problems, and one news story showed customers beating on a line truck with baseball bats. Obviously, tempers can be short when you’re trying to survive a hurricane, but we didn’t experience anything along those lines.”
Another mandate of the communications plan was to ensure employees were updated at least once a day about the hurricane and management decisions. Email and phone messages were issued, but Ryan’s team also upgraded their employee bulletins to utilize their electronic bulletin board.
“We developed the template for the bulletins as part of our communications plan,” said Ryan. “Every employee has access to the electronic bulletin boards to receive updated information.”
shelter from the storm
LCEC opened its doors to serve as a shelter for employees and family members, and the lodging committee worked to secure places for people to sleep. “I saw employees working around the clock knowing that their own homes were destroyed or substantially damaged,” said Ryan.
Handling one hurricane is hard enough, but how would these 350 people keep up their efforts through the three major storms to follow? “We were raring to go for Charley, but when Frances came along many of our people hadn’t had a day off,” said Ryan. “We had to dig down and keep working, resting when we could.”
The mark of a good plan is that it doesn’t rest on its laurels. Ryan’s team had learned some new tricks after Charley that helped them through the rest of the storms.
“We didn’t keep a phone log during Charley,” said Ryan. “We had phone numbers scribbled on gum wrappers, sticky notes, you name it. We spent a lot of time trying to remember the details of different requests from various reporters, or looking up their phone number because it wasn’t taken down. Having a phone log ensured we captured all of the information the first time.”
Another lesson learned was to be cautious about restoration times. “We met most of the restoration times we gave to the media, but in some areas the damage was so severe it was impossible to give an estimate until the crew got there to assess the situation,” said Ryan.
Part of the reason LCEC received such positive media coverage is due to the work that went into their crisis communications plan.
A well-conceived crisis communications plan can be a lifeline when the going gets tough. When it comes time to develop your own plan, give it the thought and attention it deserves. You’ll be glad you did.
Matt is founder and principal of The Matt Group, an integrated marketing communications firm specializing in the energy industry. Her areas of focus include brand strategy, customer communications, competitive assessments and marketing. She can be reached at 480-704-0897 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.