Crisis Communications Case Study from California Wildfires and PG&E

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC

The annual wildfire season in California is presenting us with an interesting crisis communication case study. I’d encourage you to follow media reports and listen to what each expert says in those media reports. As we review this crisis, we’ll look at it through the lens of the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications, especially the concept of Step 1 – Your Vulnerability Assessment. (If you are not familiar with the 5 Steps of Effective Crisis Communications, follow this link for a free video tutorial.) Additionally, this crisis is a personification of defining a crisis as an event that affects a company’s revenue and reputation.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has been dealing with a financial crisis after facing lawsuits leading from allegations that the company’s power lines may have started past fires that destroyed homes and took lives.

The liability is so devastating that PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. This is the personification of a crisis that is affecting a company’s revenue and reputation.

Now the electric company is fighting criticism because it has been shutting off power in fire-prone areas as a way to prevent fires. This again, is affecting the company’s revenue and reputation.

If you worked at PG&E, how would you manage this crisis? From the perspective of a Vulnerability Assessment, on one hand you have to assess the potential loss of property and lives if a fire breaks out because a faulty power line starts a fire. On the other hand, you have to assess the financial hardship the company is thrusting upon all of the businesses that cannot operate because they have no power.

One farmer showed the media how $50,000 worth of produce could go bad in his farm’s refrigerator unit that was now without power. This story is multiplied in many ways by many businesses, not to mention all of the homeowners affected by the outage.

My guess is PG&E will face a new round of lawsuits from homeowners and businesses that have faced losses because of the shutdown of power.

A further root cause analysis from a Vulnerability Assessment standpoint would have to examine all of the allegations that PG&E has not properly maintained their power lines, transformers, and equipment. Critics allege that failure to maintain the system is the root cause of the deadly fires. Other critics dig deeper, saying PG&E has spent too many years trying to give money to stockholders, rather than reinvesting in their infrastructure.

What do you know about the company where you work? Is it a publicly traded company that prioritizes stockholders over customers? Are there potential crises like this on your horizon? Do you see competing interests that need to be dealt with now, before they reach a flash point?

Your immediate course of action should be to gather your leadership team together and discuss these vulnerabilities before a crisis ignites. A good Vulnerability Assessment may provide a roadmap that allows you to eliminate a crisis before it ignites. If the crisis can’t be eliminated, it allows you to develop a plan to deal with the crisis if it ignites.

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

When “It” Hits the Fan: A Crisis Communication Lesson on Speediness


By Gerard Braud

It’s an honor to be invited to deliver the morning keynote presentation today to the SynGas 2015 Conference in Tulsa. You can view today’s handout here.

The crisis communications lessons being discussed on stage serve as a reminder to everyone in the C-Suite, in emergency response, and in public relations, that news travels fast. The faster the news travels, the faster a corporation must respond. Smart phone technology and social media are changing the rules for both corporations and the media.

A good case study is last week’s natural gas explosion and fire in Fresno, California. Crews digging with a backhoe struck a natural gas line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

YouTube was filled with videos shot on smart phones as motorists passed the scene.

youtube 2 fresno

Twitter also lit up, as eyewitnesses shared their videos. Take a look at these screen grabs taken from Twitter user @shroom0021. Notice how many media outlets are asking to use the video he posted on Twitter.




These are just some of many Twitter posts the media have found. I did not find a single example of video used on television news that was captured by an official news photographer. It may have happened, but every one that I saw used on television was from an eyewitness and not an official media source, nor from an official corporate source. This is critical for leaders to understand.

These days, information about any news event is captured on video and shared in moments, hastening the need for official information. The First Critical Statement document that I mentioned in the keynote presentation is available for download. (To get a free download use the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN when you select the item from my shopping cart.)

PG&E posted a news release to their official website and then shared it via a link on their Facebook page. I’m unable to tell from the web news release exactly how long it took for the company to get their official release out to the world. My goal is for a company to always post their initial release within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis. It doesn’t have to include every detail, only the facts known at that time. A second news release can be posted as soon as more details are known.



In the news release initially posted by the utility company, PG&E points out that the incident was not their fault, but the fault of contract work crews digging in the area. They also emphasized in their message the need for all contractors to dial 811 before digging and noted that the contractor had not called 811 before digging.

My suggestion to all companies is to have a library of pre-written news releases written and ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’ve not found any companion videos or images shot by PG&E employees, but posting your own official photos and videos is always a good idea. Ultimately, you want to control the flow of accurate information in as many ways as you can.

Ultimately, someone is going to tell your story. It can be people like @shroomy0021 or it can be your official version of the story. Ultimately the media will use someone’s version of the facts as well as someone’s images and videos. It can either come from the “shroomys” of the world or it can be your official photos and videos.

The time to plan your crisis communications strategy should always be long before you need it. Take these five steps:

1) Hold a Vulnerability Assessment round table.

2) Write pre-written news releases for as many of your vulnerabilities as possible.

3) Write a crisis communications plan with very specific details and instructions for gathering details from the scene of your crisis. Then write details for specific ways you plan to share your news releases with your core audiences and most important stakeholders.

4) Conduct media training at least once a year with subject matter experts who could do media interviews during a crisis. As a supplement to an actual on-site training program you can visit this blog post for a FREE 29-day media training tutorial. You may also want to supplement that by reading my book, Don’t Talk to the Media Until…

5) Conduct at least one crisis communications drill each year to test the ability of your teams to work together during a crisis.

A good leader should never be in denial about the need to prepare for a crisis. The sign of a good leader is someone who does their duty and takes action on a clear sunny day so that all parties will be responsible when “it” hits the fan.