Rural electric cooperatives are facing a crisis. Distrust of co-op boards and directors is increasing. Negative news stories and protests across the country are on the rise.
Will this affect you? Should you be concerned?
You may be doing everything perfectly, legally, and ethically – but you could still face a crisis caused by distrust and guilt by association. Your members may question board members at public events or at the co-op’s annual meeting. Angry members may launch a negative Facebook campaign and they may sow the seeds of doubt with your local media, who will then launch an investigation.
You can also learn more about best practices in public relations and crisis communications by using this link to get access to a special 5-part video series on the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications.
To see what other cooperatives are experiencing, use the links below. Accusations involve allegations of excessive per diem and compensation as outlined on your co-op’s Form 990 that you submit to the IRS. Regulators and protesters are asserting that directors are “spending too much money attending conferences in fancy hotels while eating steak dinners.” This may not actually be true for you and your board of directors, but that will not stop inquiries and protests. CEOs & general managers are losing their jobs. Board members and directors are being voted out.
I spent 15 years as a television reporter and reported on electric cooperatives. For the past 20 years I’ve worked with electric cooperatives across America helping them communicate more effectively and navigate difficult situations. I’d be honored to help you as well.
For immediate help, phone me at 985-624-9976 or send an email to Gerard@BraudCommunications.com
Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”
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For electric cooperatives, consumer engagement remains critical to continued success. Social media allows you to be involved with members on a personal level. Many people view smartphones and other mobile devices as an extension of themselves. They’re connected—and they expect you to be connected, too.
To toss up a social media presence without proper management or trained communications people to guide content is a recipe for disaster; however choosing to avoid social media can prove to be as catastrophic.
The need for electric utility social media presence is best demonstrated during Crisis communication. Social media allows for fast, fact driven, controlled communication. During a major outage the worst thing a utility company can do is not provide regular up to date information with customers. Getting information from traditional media outlets alone is no longer acceptable.
When customers see that they are one of thousands currently without power or can see pictures of miles of downed poles and lines that information can greatly influence their expectations for restoration. It can also greatly influence traditional media expectations. Social media communication during prolonged outages has also been proven successful in deflecting inquiries to the call center and helping improve call center response time. Social media outage information gets shared by other organizations, the media and individuals, all helping your information reach a greater number of people in a timely fashion.
Not to be forgotten are the marketing opportunities, corporate branding and general community outreach.
The social media conversation will take place with or without you. “Doing nothing” has never been the answer to managing your brand. Being actively involved puts you in the conversation. It lets you tell your story with facts and better control of the message.
No matter what you do you will never create 100% customer satisfaction. Someone will make a negative comment on one of your channels. Some negative comments turn out to be a positive, offering the chance to transform an angry customer into a brand ambassador. More often than not your engaged fans will defend you if someone is bashing without a reason. If you opt not to establish a social media presence, your members can still post unflattering things about you online. What’s the advantage of providing a place for your members to talk about you online? It puts you in the conversation. They will establish a reputation for you even if you aren’t out there to share the facts. Your story will be told even if you “do nothing.”
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Today’s crisis communications tip looks at what happens when angry customers take to Facebook to complain about your company. Complaints on your Facebook page or complaints on a Facebook group page built for and by the complainers is creating public relations problems for companies.
All of us can learn from this perfect crisis communication lesson — It can be found at every utility company, where customers who are angry about their high winter bills and are venting their frustration and anger on Facebook.
Many utility companies do exactly what they should not do: They do nothing.
The men and women in leadership positions at both investor owned electric companies and rural electric cooperative companies have spent decades practicing the art of hope, as in, “I hope this just goes away.”
However, engaging with these angry customers on Facebook can be problematic because social media is filled with traps.
Trap 1: If you comment on a post that is either positive or negative, it can lead to an exponentially high number of negative responses.
Trap 2: If you comment on any Facebook posts, it sends it to the top on everyone’s news feed.
What do you do?
Solution One: Fix the problem and/or make the anger and hostility go away. The reality is there will never be a refund for electricity used. And chances are, the customer has forgotten that their bill was likely this high during the coldest month of the year 12 months ago and just as high during the hottest month of the year six months ago. But they would rather blame their electric company than to take personal responsibility.
The solution is to manage the expectations of the customer by eliminating the peaks and valleys in their bill by offering an option to have what many companies call bill averaging or bill levelization. It means the customer will see nearly the same amount on their bill every month. Often, it will reduce this month’s $400 bill to an easier to pay $250 bill, which makes the customer happier.
Solution Two: Take the discussion offline. In many cases, the best way to handle an angry customer is to have customer service pick up the phone and call them directly. Customer service is able to demonstrate the type of soothing, personal concern that would be lost on a Facebook post.
Make the Crisis Go Away
The problem with the, “I hope it goes away” philosophy is that the problem will go away within the next two months as spring arrives and many customers use little, if any heating or air conditioning. But the problem will return during the hottest month of the year, then go away, then return next winter.
If you have a solution that can make the crisis go away once an for all, then by all means do it.
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Consider this: Just a few years ago rural electric cooperatives were not under pressure to communicate rapidly with the media, members or employees. Today, you have less than one hour to control the flow of accurate information.
There are three major reasons why this is changing and four things you can do to adjust to these changes. If you are not adjusting to these changes, you will be in big trouble.
To learn about the three major changes and four ways to adjust, read on…
To communicate effectively at a 2014 level, you need these four things:
1) Your co-op must have the most extensive crisis communications plan ever written.
2) Your crisis communications plan must have a library of at least 100 pre-written news releases.
3) Your CEO/manager, operations director, customer service director, and public relations director must agree to all train at least once a year for media interviews.
4) Your co-op must conduct a crisis communications drill at least once a year to test your crisis communications plan, your pre-written news releases, and the media interview skills of your spokespeople.
Why is this suddenly so critical in 2014? Here are the three reasons:
#1 Urban Sprawl
Time was, when city media seldom reported on rural electric co-op issues. Today, as cities like Houston, Atlanta, and others have turned pastures and forests into neighborhoods, the media aggressively covers stories in these areas. New residents in new houses represent a young, emerging audience with disposable income that appeals to advertisers, especially for television news. Those same new residents are likely to be the quickest to call a television news investigative reporter and they will be the first to comment online about a negative news report.
#2 The Rural Weekly Paper is Online
Time was, when rural news was only reported by the local weekly newspaper. Today, the internet has allowed the weekly paper to publish online 24/7. No longer can you take days to respond to a co-op controversy. The weekly paper may still print just one day a week, but they need an interview, facts and quotes from you just as fast as the big city media.
#3 Social Media
An angry member can quickly escalate any issue to the crisis level. They can escalate an issue into an online controversy and a mainstream media controversy. While many co-op managers and board members continue to wrangle with, question, and oppose a social media presence, members are creating their own anti-cooperative Facebook pages. Your extensive crisis communications plan must have a social media strategy.
Co-op communications is changing rapidly. If you, like so many cooperative communicators, find yourself with too many other tasks and too few people or hours in the day, please call me. I have fast, easy and affordable solutions to your communication challenges, including a world class crisis communications plan that can be customized in just two days.
Click here to LISTEN to what other cooperative communicators have to say about this fast, cost effective way to implement a crisis communications plan customized for your cooperative. You can also call me at 985-624-9976 to learn more.
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On any given day customers could be protesting over electric rates. Workers could be under attack for disconnecting service. Board members could be scrutinized for per diems, travel or expenses. Add to that the growing influence of negative social media comments and big city media covering more co-op controversies, and you have a storm brewing. That storm demands effective communications from all executives, board members, and co-op public relations teams.
Here are three steps every cooperative should take:
There is no excuse, in this modern age of media, for any executive, board member or public relations person to mess up when talking to the media. But it still happens.
Many rural people tend to be friendly, honest and sometimes too chatty. Unfortunately many executives, board members and public relations people mistake the gift of gab for the ability to be an effective communicator with the media. Many board members mistakenly believe the respect they get from their status in their communities will transfer to respect from the media. That isn’t true. The fact is many of the habits you have in everyday conversation have to be avoided when talking with a reporter.
Don’t worry, there is hope. The secret is to set aside one day every year to sit down in front of a television camera with a media training coach to practice realistic interview scenarios.
Since most reporters really do not fully understand the history and inner workings of cooperatives, your media training must adopt the newest innovations in training. Never settle for training that provides only bullet points as talking points. This outdated method leads to bad ad-libs and ugly quotes.
Modern training requires a library of pre-written quotes, learned and internalized by each executive, board member and spokesperson. When written properly, internalized, and practiced, these verbatim sentences provide context, information and strong quotes. These are all elements reporters need in their story. Also, when written in a conversational sentence structure, these sentences are easy to work into everyday conversations by leaders and employees alike.
Consider that many executives who are interviewed complain that they are taken out of context and misquoted. A well-worded, pre-planned opening sentence delivered by the spokesperson can serve as a pre-amble statement that provides context to your cooperative’s goals and purpose. This forever eliminates the issue of being taken out of context.
With annual media training you will be a good spokesperson for good news, as well as when you have to speak to the media during a crisis.
The worst time to deal with a crisis is during the crisis. The best time is on a clear sunny day.
During good times, your cooperative must conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify all potential crises.
You must write a crisis communications plan that chronologically tells you every step you must take to effectively communicate during the crisis.
You must write a preliminary fill-in-the-blank statement to use in the first hour of your crisis when facts are still being determined.
You must create a more detailed news release style statement for each potential crisis that you identified in your vulnerability assessment.
If you identify 100 potential crises, then you need to write 100 potential news releases, using evergreen facts, fill in the blanks and multiple-choice options. This is best done through a facilitated writing retreat with your communications team.
A classic mistake cooperatives make is to prepare communications only for natural disasters, power outages and worker injuries. A modern crisis communications plan must also cover smoldering crises such as executive misbehavior, discrimination, financial mismanagement, per diems, and even crises involving social media.
When pre-written on a clear sunny day, these documents are ready for quick release to the media, employees, customers, the Internet and other key audiences. This process is not easy and is time consuming, but it pays huge dividends during your crisis. Many organizations experience a crisis, then in the midst of it, look at a blank word document and try to spontaneously draft a statement. The statement then goes through unprecedented scrutiny and rewrites, resulting in massive delays. In the modern age of fast communications, this is lunacy. You should never put off until tomorrow what you can write today.
Writing your Crisis Communications Plan is the perfect way to get all employees, executives, and board members on the same page. On a clear sunny day you can all agree on the policies and procedures that need to be followed for effective crisis communications. Make sure your plan goes beyond standard operating procedures. Also, make sure it doesn’t rely on only the expertise of your public relations team. The plan must be so thorough that nothing in the process is forgotten, yet easy enough to understand and follow that it can be executed by anyone who can read.
Too many cooperatives make the mistake of thinking their executives can wing it in a crisis. They think a gift of gab equates to being a great spokesperson. They also think that knowledge of the business equips them to manage a crisis and the communications for that crisis.
The secret to getting it right on your darkest day is to set aside time on a clear sunny day to hold a crisis drill. During your drill your emergency managers can run a table-top exercise. Your communications team and executives act out a real-time exercise, complete with news conferences, using role players to portray the media.
When done correctly, a drill exposes bad decision-making, bad behavior and outright incompetence among responders, spokespeople and those in leadership roles. Conversely, annual drills teach your team members how to effectively work together during a crisis. Team members are taught to achieve effective communications while also working to end the crisis.
As your facilitator prepares your drill scenario, make sure you include realistic elements of social media, since social media can spread good and bad news faster and further than the reach of traditional media.
As more cities sprawl into rural areas, they bring more homes and electric customers into your cooperative territory. The sprawl also brings more media attention and more scrutiny of your operations.
The best way to prepare for the increased attention you will get, is to plan on a clear sunny day and never to wait for the dark clouds to roll in.
About the author: Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC has helped organizations on 5 continents communicate more effectively with the media, employees and customers in good times and bad. He facilitates writing retreats and workshops to help cooperatives write and complete their crisis communications plans in just 2 days. He also trains cooperative board members and leaders on how to become effective spokespeople.
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