During times of emergencies, communication with those affected is paramount. British Columbia’s South Coast experienced a test run of what is to come if a larger disaster affects our region, and many would agree our authorities’ communication strategies were as much in the dark as half a million customers without power.
On Saturday around noon, when the power began to flicker and go out for so many, residents turned to the BC Hydro website to report their outage and find out more information about when power may come back on. But anyone who typed in bchydro.com for much of Saturday and Sunday was faced with a blank white screen, reading “website unavailable”.
Phone lines returned the busy signal as well, making it near impossible for anyone to find information about their power outage. The social savvy turned to Twitter, where most expected to see detailed and constant updates from Metro Vancouver’s only power authority, but again, they were left in the dark.
Updates were initially vague and redundant.
Crews are working hard on #BCStorm outages across Lower Mainland. Will provide updates when available; working to resolve website issues.
— BC Hydro (@bchydro) August 29, 2015
About 200,000 customers without power due to #BCstorm. Crews are working to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.
— BC Hydro (@bchydro) August 29, 2015
The power went out for most around 12:30 p.m. At that time, Hydro tweeted that they were currently experiencing issues with their website and would provide updates shortly. Thirty minutes later, they tweeted that crews were working to restore the outages. About fifty minutes after that, they tweeted that 200,000 customers were without power. An hour and a half later, at 3:15 p.m., another tweet was posted, offering virtually no new information. At 4:15 p.m., 400,000 people were without power. No information with regional updates or estimated times of return were posted, only indicating that a “significant number of customers” would be without power into the evening. Two hours later the next tweet was posted, saying they were hoping their website would be up and running soon. No dice. At 6:45 p.m., Hydro revealed some customers would be without power into the morning. Still, no regional updates, no outage maps and no response to tweets or questions asked by their customers. Into the evening, Hydro’s Twitter updates continued with ambiguous information about how many people had lost power in each municipality. For the hundreds of thousands who had been in the dark for over five hours, this information was pointless. As darkness set in on Saturday night, those still with battery life on their phones used whatever was left to complain about Hydro’s lack of communication.
@bchydro Understand repairs take time but why not tweet updates for specific areas, esp. w/ website down?
— Lara White (Freimond (@LaraColleen) August 29, 2015
@bchydro Most won’t fault you for lines going down and the time to fix outages. But not having a working website?!?! Thats pathetic.
— Paul Lancaster (@paulclancaster) August 29, 2015
Just after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Hydro finally released a PDF version of their outages list, a 91-page document outlining the power status of each outage area and the estimated time of return. But that was not without criticism either; some users of Android phones were unable to open the PDF in their browsers.
According to Ready, a U.S. government preparedness resource for emergencies and disasters, organizations need to have a crisis communication plan that reflects their audiences’ needs.
“A business must be able to respond promptly, accurately and confidently during an emergency in the hours and days that follow. Many different audiences must be reached with information specific to their interests and needs. The image of the business can be positively or negatively impacted by public perceptions of the handling of the incident,” says their webpage.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a massive manual for crisis and emergency risk communication in 2014, outlining how government agencies and other organizations can prepare communication strategies for disasters and other emergencies. While this past weekend was barely an “emergency,” it did provide a dubious test run to see how our authorities may communicate during a worse crisis, say a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. And it seems they could learn a thing or two from this manual.
The use of social media, in this day and age, needs to be a top priority in crisis communication. Especially when electricity is concerned, many are used to receiving Twitter or Facebook updates on their mobile devices using wireless data. Only few have enough data to stream television or listen to the radio for extended periods of time, making social channels the easiest and fastest way to disseminate information. But according to the CDC, using social media for crisis communication must begin long before a crisis occurs.
“Developing relationships with audiences before a crisis occurs builds trust. Using social media before a crisis can also help promote preparedness and educate audiences about risks,” says the CDC. “Organizations need to be regular users of social media before a crisis. Establish your social media relationships early. If not, social media users will go to other sources and groups with whom they already have relationships for information.”
When the disaster occurs, organizations already have their audiences’ ear. They then need to be the key sources of information, especially if misinformation and rumours begin to spread online.
The CDC advises organizations follow eight best-practices for communication during a crisis or emergency:
1. “Join the conversation, help manage rumours by responding to misinformation, and determine the best channels to reach segmented audiences.”
While BC Hydro neglected to respond to customer questions for much of the weekend, the CDC pinpoints this as a big no-no. Organizations need to prepare their staff to handle an overwhelming amount of inquiries. “Responding to posts demonstrates that the organization cares what stakeholders think. It also demonstrates that the organization is engaged and able to address their concerns,” they say.
2. “Check all information for accuracy and respond honestly to questions.”
The CDC says that even if an organization doesn’t know the answer to a question, they should respond with their uncertainty rather than not respond at all. Hydro repeatedly communicated through Twitter that they did not know when power may be restored to various regions, but would not address specific customer concerns about areas when asked. When they posted the PDF document on Saturday evening, many people who were unable to open it turned to news sites which had transcribed the information in a more user-friendly way.
3. “Recognize that the media are already using social media.”
Their fourth practice requires that organizations communicate with media to provide commentary and information on the event. If they don’t, the media might use comments from other social media users and may disseminate information that is contrary to the organizations messaging and reputation.
4. “Remember social media is interpersonal communication.”
Tying in several of the above points, this item encourages organizations not to send out messages that come off as “generic marketing blurbs.” An unfortunate case for BC Hydro was when an apparently scheduled tweet was posted over the weekend, asking their audience to enter the Discover BC Hydro contest. In a public relations context, that tweet came off like Hydro was taking advantage of their audience’s currently high engagement levels to promote their business. The CDC says “organizations should be ready to pull messages, such as advertisements or campaigns, in case of a crisis.”
— BC Hydro (@bchydro) August 28, 2015
5. “Use social media as the primary tool for updates.”
If the Hydro website had been up and running, customers without power would have been able to see their region on a map and learn the status of their power restoration. Despite the site being down, it is undeniable Hydro still had that information, but did not have an alternative back-up plan on how to communicate it with the public until late Saturday. Each update could have been tweeted out or posted in a longer list on Facebook. An image of the outage map could also have been shared.
6. “Ask for help and provide direction.”
This is one area in which BC Hydro excelled over the weekend. Serious reminders to stay away from power lines and information on how to preserve food was easy to find. On Sunday afternoon, Hydro even retweeted some directions on how to open their PDF on an Android phone.
By and large, BC Hydro’s communication response to the South Coast storm this past weekend left a lot to be desired, but strategy greatly improved by Sunday afternoon when power was being restored after around 30 hours on the fritz.
They began responding to almost all individual tweets about specific regions, including those in the middle of the night, around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday and posted more specific and useful updates, which customers appreciated. Though they didn’t always have the information customers were looking for, just a response and indication people were being heard was enough to ease some worries.
While it is easy to criticize BC Hydro, a scan of other local authority Twitter accounts does not offer a promising picture for the kind of communication residents will receive if a worse disaster hits the area.
B.C. RCMP’s Twitter made no mention of the storm, despite numerous car accidents and traffic concerns, and Vancouver Fire and Rescue only reminded people not to barbeque inside or leave candles unattended, despite sirens being heard consistently for over 24 hours.
Metro Vancouver Regional District’s Twitter made no mention of the storm, nor did Premier Christy Clark or Deputy Premier Rich Coleman. Emergency Info BC, the provincial emergency alerts and notices Twitter account, was quiet as well.