Regulatory Investigation 2.0: Evaluating Utilities’ Social Media Response to Hurricane Irene

by Carolyn Elefant on September 19, 2011

in Social Media in Regulated Utilities

Call it Investigation 2.0. Whereas back in the day before Facebook and Twitter, utilities could expect questions from regulators about power-restoration or repair response times in the aftermath of a severe weather event, now, they’re facing probes about the effectiveness of their use of social media. As I wrote two weeks ago, the Massachusetts AG’s office asked four utilities to submit their records of social media posts aimed at keeping customers informed of outages and estimated repair times. Now, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) Board of Trustees’ will review LIPA’s performance during Hurricane Irene, including the effectiveness of communications such as the call center, Website and social media use.

Connecticut legislators will also examine utilities’ response times, reports the Middletown Press.  And, in an interesting twist, they’ve set up a Facebook Page and Twitter Account where the public can submit “official testimony” regarding their experiences with their utility during Irene. Thus, far, there’s a fairly robust discussion on the After Irene Facebook Page that is surprisingly civil and relatively balanced.

These recent developments are signs that Hurricane Irene will go down as a watershed (yes, pun intended!) event in the annals of energy regulatory practice.  Prior to Irene, regulators measured a utility’s weather related performance by results — such as the number of customers who lost power or number of days in which power was restored.  But these post-storm inquiries suggest that process — the speed with which utilities communicated repair updates to customers, or the number of channels available for customers seeking information — matters just as much as the results obtained.

There are a couple of reasons why today’s regulators are more focused on utility responsiveness than in years past.  First, as I’ve posted before, today’s consumers are accustomed to 24/7 access to information. If consumers in New York City can learn of far flung events like an uprising in Egypt or an earthquake in Washington D.C. literally seconds after they’ve occurred via a mobile phone app for Facebook or Twitter, it’s hard for them to comprehend why the local utility can’t inform them immediately about a felled distribution wire around the corner from their house.

Not only do today’s customers expect more of utilities, but regulators do too — and rightly so.  Given the pervasiveness of low cost communications tools like Facebook or Twitter, regulators want to know why more utilities haven’t made use of them.   Whereas a few years back, a utility might have once defended inadequate post-storm communications as a cost-saving alternative to staffing a call center with 50 employees earning overtime, social media pulls the rug out from under that justification.  Most social media platforms are free and while utilities must still deploy employees to create, monitor and oversee social media accounts, far fewer personnel are needed to update a Facebook page or Twitter account than to operate a call center.  In fact, with the Connecticut legislature using social media to gather evidence for its investigation, it’s going to be tough for Connecticut utilities to claim that they couldn’t get a social media presence up and running.

Each new weather disaster brings new lessons.  Hurricane Katrina taught the importance of early warning and forceful evacuation orders; better safe than sorry.  With Hurricane Irene, a new version of Katrina’s lesson has blown in:  in the aftermath of a storm, better social media, than sorry.

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