Outages and Public Relations: Lessons learned in a massive March snowstorm

REGION – The best way to deliver unavoidable bad weather-related news to your customers? "Quickly!" say those who know a thing or two about the intersection of northern Michigan snowstorms and customer relations.

"You need to immediately get away from, 'I heard this, I heard that,' and get the same factual information out to everyone as quickly as you can," said Tony Anderson, general manager of Cherryland Electric Cooperative. "When the unexpected happens, people just want to know what's going on. My advice is to tell them. You can't go wrong telling your customers the truth, whether the news is good or bad."

That's the lesson learned from the March storm that dropped up to 20 inches of wet snow on Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties, toppled trees, and caused as many as 150,000 residents throughout northern Michigan to be without power, some for as long as a week. On Saturday, March 3, much of the area was under a state of emergency, stranded cars made plowing even main roads complicated, and area hotels filled up fast. The Grand Traverse Resort, for example, was filled to 100 percent capacity from March 3 to March 6, normally a slow time for the facility said J. Michael D'Agostino, public relations manager.

"The important thing is to have plans for emergencies and contingencies," D'Agostino said. "Light sticks to use in the dark and fresh batteries for radios, for example. Do the best you can, give guests the best service you can with what you have, and answer every question, one phone call at a time."

The Resort received more than 1,800 phone calls during the storm from people seeking shelter, he said. Many had to be politely directed to other hotels.

Of Cherryland Electric's 34,000 customers, 19,700 lost power; of Traverse City Light and Power's 11,000 customers, 8,000 lost power, making any communication especially difficult. And, if there's one thing you can count on during northern Michigan's worst snow storms: Just as everything else freezes to a halt, bad news will be the one thing managing to travel even faster than normal.

Unfortunately, that's especially true for inaccurate bad news.

"You've got to provide factual news, even if it's bad," said Jessica Wheaton, community relations coordinator for Traverse City Light and Power. "We tried to get an estimate out to our customers of when the power would be back on, but once crews got out and saw how bad things were, that estimate got pushed back and then pushed back again. Still, you have to let people know exactly what is happening as soon as you can, even if it's not what they want to hear."

Anderson said it's also important to gather staff for a debriefing soon after a storm or other act of God has passed. That's when plans can be made to improve response the next time the unexpected happens. For example, some of Cherryland's employees who work in the office and don't spend time in the field and were responsible for leading out-of-town line crews brought in to help restore power. Additional training for them would make that process go more smoothly next time.

At Traverse City Light and Power, Wheaton said staff there also met for a "storm critique" to assess the company's reaction to the extensive power outages and planned to consider adding more social media to their communication mix.

"When something like that happens that knocks out all communication sources, it's really difficult to get in contact with our customers in any way," she said. "One of the things we can look into is using social media. That was a major lesson."

During the storm, Cherryland's Anderson directed employees in the cooperative's call center to keep track of the most common questions customers asked. When the snow melted and power was restored, he used his semi-regular email note to customers to provide the answers. And although those answers show Cherryland has yet to solve every problem permanently – for example, the company will never be able to answer thousands of phone calls in a call center with 23 phone lines – Anderson said the response to just giving out the information was overwhelmingly positive.

"I always get people who complain when I send out these emails, but this time, I received 120 positive responses and not a single negative one," he said. "I've been waiting for some to come in, but none have. It's been amazing. I even had one lady who sent me an email apologizing for being angry last week. Sitting here today, I'm feeling very much supported by the membership." BN