Public enemies: You might find some in the blogosphere

by Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

TXU sucks. So do Pacific Gas and Electric, Con Edison, and Florida Power & Light. At least, that’s what some grouchy-sounding blog writers say. In the blogosphere, most of those utilities stink, too. FP&L didn’t come up as stinky in a recent Google blog search but, who knows? With 1.6 million new blog postings added to the Internet every day, it might stink soon.

Granted, anyone reading this site knows that none of these energy providers suck, stink or should go… well, you know where. But, online ranters sometimes have a different view. And, often, their comments involve customer service issues.

“I think it should be the job of somebody in every utility to type the company’s name into an Internet search engine — plus the word sucks — to see what people are saying,” notes Matthew Joyce, research manager for E Source, an energy-industry business-intelligence consultancy. He believes watching blogs is an easy way for utilities to check the pulse of consumers.

That was a key point Joyce made when addressing utility communications professionals at a recent conference. His company offers utility-communicator coaching, too, and he has some smart tips to offer those who haven’t logged on to see customer opinions recently.

Fine — and not so fine — whines

Joyce will tell you that he sees blogs falling into one of three categories. The first, he calls “echo chambers.” These are the blogs that pick up wire-service news stories and republish them for their readership. Sometimes they’ll offer commentary on those stories.

According to Joyce, echo-chamber blogs can be good or bad. It all depends on what kind of publicity they’re re-publicizing. Even if such blogs are passing on bad news about your organization, Joyce doesn’t feel utility response is necessarily called for. “They’re amplifying what’s already out there,” he says. Offering response could validate the blog or magnify the news even further, so you might want to ignore it.

That’s not the case with opinion/editorial blogs. Online op-eds are just like those in the newspaper. If they’re compelling enough, corporate communicators might want to be thinking of ways to address them.

To illustrate his point, Joyce offers this example of a blog posting that slams Xcel Energy. He says it’s a particularly effective hit against the utility, because the blog writer is using one of the Xcel’s own brochures as evidence of the gas utility’s misstep.

Should you respond to such a posting? And, if so, how? “If the op-ed piece is raising important issues, you may want to respond to the writer on the blog,” Joyce says. But, even if you don’t want to engage the writer online, “you might want to come up with some corporate message that explains or counters the negative viewpoint so that you can start shaping public opinion in your favor.”

The sites you really want to watch for are rabble-rousing blogs. “This is where you have a grass-roots effort organizing opposition” to the utility, Joyce explains. His example is a site that offers evidence of corporate misdeeds — failure to show up at a public hearing — and doesn’t stop there. “The writers are spurring people to take action and giving readers specific steps to follow.” For instance, there’s a link that will help readers find a state representative’s email, as well as an electronic petition to sign.

“This is where it gets bad,” says Joyce. A blog like this “should get utility people away from their desks and into the street or onto the telephone.”

Watching the World Wide Web go by

Certainly, you’ll want to respond to a blog that’s mustering forces against you, but before you can do so, you have to know what’s being said out there in cyberspace.

Joyce says there are several companies that, for a fee, will watch the web for your utility’s good name. However, he doesn’t think it’s necessary to pay for blog-monitoring services.

Instead, he recommends utilities sign up for the automatic “alerts” available from Google’s blog-watch service. It allows you to choose whether you want blog alerts daily, weekly or as postings you’d want to see go live.

If you’re lucky, none of the 84 million blogs online currently are shooting barbs your way. But, with 175,000 new blogs created every day, that certainly could change. As of now, Joyce estimates that some 70 percent of utilities show up in the digital diatribes of cyberspace.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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