The last time a major hurricane battered the Houston area, I was reporting from the aftermath of Hurricane Ike for the Federal Emergency Managment Agency (FEMA) as a member of the headquarter’s public affairs team in 2008.
With Hurricane Harvey, I see the intersection of my new career as a communications consultant working with rural electric cooperatives with my former one as I watch Texas, once again, battle back from massive flooding and power outages. But this time, with social media as part of the communication strategy. Back in 2008, social media wasn’t in the media mix. Now with widespread use, it can be utilized as a real lifesaver, as well as a force of destruction if it’s dismissed as noise. (More on that later).
By their nature, people who work for utility co-ops are dedicated to serving their communities. They know how much their members depend on them in their everyday lives, and they don’t take that for granted.
In times of emergencies, this dedication comes to the forefront. Line crews put in extra hours in trying circumstances to restore power or make sure it doesn’t fail. The home office kicks into gear to coordinate efforts. Everyone steps up and does all that’s asked of them — and more.
A crisis also presents opportunities to not only serve the members but to show them that you’re determined to maintain or enhance the trust they’ve placed in you.
To help you do so, here is a list of actions to take in the face of a crisis such as a major storm or environmental catastrophe.
These are the bare minimums needed to create a professional presence online and stay relevant.
- Keep your members informed on your website AND your social media accounts. Do not assume that without power, people won’t be able to access digital communications. For many members, their list of needs during a crisis ranks a mobile phone just behind: shelter, food, and water.
- Stay online yourself. If needed, find an alternative source of power to keep your computers and Wi-Fi up and running.
- Check your automated feed to temporarily suppress posts unrelated to the emergency. The last thing you want showing up on your site now is a silly meme, reminders to change filters or notices about your annual meeting. The majority of your posts should be exclusively focused on the disaster and restoration efforts.
- Keep updates posted on your website and all social media accounts. Don’t be afraid to repeat information. Your members want to know the latest, even if there’s been no change in the past three hours.
- Give members information on how they can report outages. Provide a phone number, website, and email address — ideally ones that are dedicated to receiving such information.
- Vet all posts for accuracy. If you have more than one administrator responsible for your social media feeds, make sure you’re coordinating their efforts. Non-communication employees may be overly excited in the face of the emergency and share information that hasn’t been verified. Find an effective way to minimize this risk.
While not absolutely necessary, these activities are highly recommended.
- Share useful information from stakeholders inside and outside the co-op. In the case of Tropical Storm Harvey, it was smart of co-ops to pass along helpful posts and updates from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the news media, volunteer organizations and their own members.
- Post video about your co-op’s work in the face of the crisis. Film and share scenes of restoration efforts featuring crew members working on lines, member service representatives manning the phones, the board of directors perhaps volunteering in the field — anything that demonstrates how you’re doing all you can to resolve problems and help members quickly and effectively. Avoid static shots of representatives talking in your office. They don’t convey a commitment to resolving the issue as well as video depicting the actions you’re taking.
- Use hashtags to help share and track information. Information about Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey was cataloged under the hashtag #Harvey. So, a cooperative that had information to share should also have used the #Harvey hashtag. Don’t forget to use it when relaying your efforts. But here’s the chance to recycle often-used hashtags personalized to electric cooperatives. For example, 24,000 members of Victoria Electric Cooperative located just over two hours southwest of Houston lost power. The co-op quickly started providing updates on the number of meters it had brought online. They also provided information about issues facing substations they did not own. Besides thanking their members for their patience, they reminded everyone of the efforts their own linemen were making to resolve the situation with the popular electric cooperative hashtag #ThankALineman.
- Let your audience know when you’re signing off for the night. On Facebook and other channels, you can indicate what’s your first post of the day and what’s your last. By managing expectations, you’re less likely to have upset members who might have been waiting for more information.
- Maintain a professional tone in your communications. In the rush of an emergency, you may be tempted to react dramatically in your writing to convey urgency. Avoid the temptation. The facts will speak for themselves. You don’t need to add exclamation points and all caps to make your case. Instead, try to convey calm. The only exception is when you want people to take quick action. For instance: “EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY!”
Nice to Do
Once you’ve checked off the items on the “Must Do” and “Should Do” lists, these are your next priorities.
- Add video to your Facebook cover page. Sam Houston Electric Cooperative in Livingston, Texas — two hours north of Houston — sent trucks and crew members to help. They videotaped their departure and added it to the cover photo area of their Facebook page, running on a 30-second loop. That’s a compelling image for people visiting the site. It instantly conveys that the co-op is not only fully informed about what is happening but has already taken meaningful action.
- Livestream video. Opt for live video whenever possible in addition to, or instead of, regular video. (It’s easier than it appears…really.) Using a smartphone, remember to hold it horizontally. If you shoot vertically (that is, the position you’d normally use to talk), you’ll generate images with “sidebars” when viewed from a desktop. If you’ve started this way, stop the broadcast, delete the video and start over. And don’t forget the captions. Closed or not -people want the option to read what is being said rather than listen to it.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqLdNLtyxUg
- Use your drone. If you have one equipped with a video camera, now’s the perfect time to send it aloft and give a bird’s-eye view of the situation. Even better: Use the drone as part of your repairs and show video of how you did so, as Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative did showing video of line crews restoring power to residents in Luling, Texas, near Caldwell County.
Above all else, remember that people do look to social media as their primary source of information. Despite what Joel Osteen — the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston — said in televised interviews to clean up his PR mess for not opening his church to evacuees, it’s not all gossip and chatter. Not paying attention to social media cost him a lot of credibility these past two days, and that’s for a good reason. What was a lifeline for many during the storm, brought significant damage to Osteen’s image.