Reflections 1 week after end of fellowship

3 Aug

If this were last week, I would be getting ready to go to BGE for the last day of my fellowship. But it’s this week, I’m back in Richmond and I’ve had some time to think about the impact this Plank Center fellowship will have on my teaching and on my students.

First, a HUGE thank-you to The Plank Center for selecting me for a fellowship and for placing me at Baltimore Gas and Electric. And an equally big thank-you to BGE for offering to host me despite budget cuts that would have made it “logical” to cancel the fellowship (thanks, Rob Gould). And another big thanks to Diane Hughes and her social media staff for so warmly welcoming me and permitting me to stick my nose into their business for two weeks. I hope to stay connected with all of them — via social media, of course :o)

I couldn’t have chosen a better 2 weeks for my fellowship than I did. I watched the social media team in action during electricity grid mandated cutbacks (BGE’s Peak Rewards program), BGE voluntary reductions and on one day, both a peak reduction AND a severe storm warning (almost sure to bring outages and angry posts and tweets from customers on Twitter and Facebook).

And BGE filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission for a rate increase. The timing couldn’t have been much worse (just 3 weeks after the freak “derecho” storm left millions in Maryland without power, some for more than a week) but it couldn’t be helped. If BGE had missed this filing window, the company wouldn’t have had another opportunity to file until next year.

I’m teaching two PR Campaigns classes this fall, and there is so much from this fellowship that I can bring to my students. Here’s just some of that:

  • The importance of having, updating and using a crisis plan. BGE’s corporate communications department used two of its crisis plans while I was “in residence” — one dealing with grid-mandated reductions in electricity usage during peak periods and the other dealing with preparing for (and helping customers prepare for) severe storm warnings. Everyone in the department is assigned specific tasks to be performed in a particular order: it reminded me a bit of the cliche’ “man your battle stations.”  And regardless of how tense they might have felt, everyone was calm and efficient.  Things didn’t quite go like clockwork, though, on the day there was both a peak usage reduction and a severe storm warning. How could two crisis plans be followed at the same time? Which took priority, the usage reduction or the severe weather? Would the two plans overlap or even worse, would they be contradictory in any respect? Both the peak usage and severe storm situations fortunately ended without major damage or service interruptions, but Rob Gould told his staff that the department would be taking a look at blending plans for handling the two situations.
  • The importance of teamwork and coordination. Both were very obvious during implementation of the crisis plans. But they were always there. I used a vacant cubicle while I was there so I was surrounded by the social media team and the media relations team — and one of the advantages of us all being in cubicles was that we could hear each other when we wanted (or tune each other out when we needed to focus on a task at hand). I heard colleagues checking with each other to offer assistance or to seek advice or assistance. Diane Hughes manages by walking around, quietly and efficiently coordinating her team’s efforts. Each staff member has particular strengths of which the other staff are aware and which they clearly respect. As a result, to use another cliche’, the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts.
  • That managers who understand the need for work-life balance are likely to have a more productive team as a result. The corporate communications department at BGE is an always busy, sometimes hectic, place. During the “derecho” storm the last week of June, when power was out over much of BGE’s service area, the corporate communications staff worked 24/7, 6 hours on duty followed by 6 hours off, repeated over and over for a week. Everyone was exhausted. They hadn’t been home for days, and hadn’t seen (and barely talked to) their families. I was very impressed when Diane Hughes, herself a mother of pre-schooler Lola, reminded her team at a staff meeting that she wanted them to take some time off (comp time) to “just chill” when they could manage to do so. And just about everyone on the social media team did so if even for just a day while I was there. Even Diane herself took a Friday off for a long weekend (and luckily there were no severe storms that would have required her to be on duty).
  • The impact technology has had and is having on how PR is practiced. Take teleconferencing for example. Out of the many meetings I attended with Diane Hughes, only a handful were face-to-face. The rest were virtual meetings via telephone, with agendas and PowerPoints simultaneously shared via computer. The two members of the social media team responsible for BGE’s website could be on speakerphone with an internal “client” and make real-time tweaks or suggestions. And then of course there are social media, which have extended the opportunities to interact with and build/strengthen relationships with customers and “clients.” While the BGE social media team is relatively small (just Diane and 4 others), it’s larger than the other two companies (ConEd in Illinois and PCO in Pennsylvania). And BGE’s use of social media in fulfilling its communications functions is, in my opinion, considerably more robust than the others.
  • That the metrics and information available to Facebook, Twitter and blog administrators can and should be used to evaluate whether these social media are being used effectively in building relationships. It’s one thing to monitor the posts and tweets, but it’s another world on the “back side” of these tools. It’s way more than just counting hits, it’s knowing who those hits were, whether what they said was positive/negative/neutral and perhaps most importantly knowing their behavior and how it might have been influenced by the interaction.

The sharing during a Plank Fellowship is to be two-way: company/organization to professor and vice versa. While BGE had much more to share than I did, I did present a summary of my latest research on reputation management (on which the corporate comms staff very graciously complimented me). And at the request of Ammanuel Moore, manager of Facebook, Twitter and blog comms, critiqued and offered suggestions on a draft PowerPoint monthly “dashboard” report for top management that would give them, quickly and briefly, statistics and numbers that would demonstrate how BGE’s use of social media is “moving the needle” of customer service and satisfaction.

I will never again view/listen to a weather report without thinking of what that means for BGE and, by extension, my own electricity provider, Dominion :o)

Thanks again to BGE and The Plank Center.



26 Jul

How did corporate communicators manage to keep up with all the meetings before teleconferencing, videoconferencing and all the other ways technology has made it possible to meet virtually?

Maybe there were fewer meetings back in the “old days.” Maybe colleagues in other business units didn’t think themcorp comm folks needed to be at the table.

Probably both. But that’s definitely not the case here at BGE. Diane has graciously let me sit in on all kinds of meetings — face-to-face, teleconferences, videoconferences, large, small and in between. And in my almost two weeks, I’ve attended meetings like these:
*social media networking circle (senior social media staff from utilities all over the country)
*customer account notification portal
*communications/government affairs coordination
*digital/web project update
*re-branding BGE project update
*discussion with IT and customer care reps about new functions on the login page
*Exelon web governance committee
*social media/web directors from within Exelon companies
*update on all facets of the Smarct Grid project

I could list as many more, but you get the point without that (and that doesn’t count the many meetings I’ve had with corporate communications staff).

I’ve learned a lot about the utility business, everything from day-to-day operations to the regulatory environment and customer care. I’ve also learned a lot about IT and how just about everything BGE does involves IT. And I’ve learned about some of BGE’s special programs, like PeakRewards (the voluntary program under which customers agree to cycle their air conditioning to run less than it normally would). (I could actually explain it quite coherently to one of the BGE security guards in the building lobby who commented about her big electricity and gas bill when we were chatting as I left on one of the high 90s days we’ve had here.)

And then there’s my new vocabulary: utilityspeak.

SMEs (subject matter experts)
BPDs (business process documents)
ORT (operational readiness regression testing)
Cutover (migration)
CCNB (customer care notofication online bill payment
CSS (customer self service)
AVR — or is it IVR? (automated voice response)

The Corporate communications staff and other BGE employees know what the acronyms mean. And they take it for granted that the BGE folks in their meetings know what they’re talking about when they sprinkle them around like salt and pepper on scrambled eggs.

But the corporate communications staff know that customers — the ultimate target public for their messages — don’t. So they frequently find themselves translating the same way a translator at the United Nations would translate from Mandarin to English.

Maybe they’ve earned the right to call themselves multilingual as well as multitaskers.

Consistent messaging

24 Jul

Today’s “ah ha” moment: I now understand the role of the Strategic Communications group within the corp comm department. I saw Debbie Larson “in action'” briefing leaders of major corp comm units (media relations, community outreach, internal communications, social media, marketing/advertising/branding/corporate social responsibility) about the development of key messages across stakeholders/publics/audiences and the prioritizing of those audience and messages.

Rob Gould is definitely the unit head, but in this discussion, everyone looked to the strategic comms unit for direction.

The whole idea of careful coordination and consistency is one of the things that stands out as a big positive about the corp comm unit. The department staff “get it,” and there’s a great “we” feeling.

I was included in the “we” for a meeting of social media staff with the head of community outreach this afternoon, the goal of which was to identify community outreach activities that could be highlighted in social media and as yet unrealized opportunities to showcase employees going above and beyond job descriptions on BGE’s various social media channels. I offered opinions and ideas, and the BGE folks respected my input. They’re being very generous :o)

The Week That Was

21 Jul

I’ve reached the end of my first of two weeks at BGE. And I have to say again that I couldn’t have chosen a better week to really see the cogs on all the wheels of corporate communications meshing to handle what was an unusually busy/tense week (even for an electric and gas utility).

Here are some of the things that stand out for me:

  • the superb, meticulous plans for dealing with the kind of emergencies (shortages, invoking of either mandatory regional or utility-specific voluntary reductions, outages, restoration of power, extreme weather) to which a utility and its customers are subject.
  • the fact that everyone knows his/her role in putting that plan into action, even the brand-new staff members, and immediately swings into action.
  • the impressive use of social media for both external and internal communication: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogging and intranet PowerNet.
  • the degree to which messaging is both consistent and complementary across platforms, right down to the use of the same key words to maximize search engine optimization.
  • the respect the CEO clearly has for the importance of communication, and the ease of access the corporate communications director has to the CEO when timely communication is critical.
  • the respect for life/work balance that is evident in how all team leaders accommodate their staffs’ needs  to balance professional and personal. Because work schedules can, literally, become 24/7 with 6 or 8 hours on duty, a few hours off and then back on duty, the team leaders encourage “chilling out” when there’s a “blue sky” day (BGE code for a day without emergency). For instance, at the social media staff meeting, Diane Hughes encouraged her staff to take a day or two of comp time off when their workload permitted.
  • the reality that the corporate communications staff really likes and thrives on what they do, and that they know it is important and makes a contribution: the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.

I was asked to make a presentation on my reputation management research at Friday’s corp comm staff meeting, which I did with the omnipresent PowerPoint. (But that fits the BGE culture: staff joke that you wouldn’t even consider calling a meeting without having a PowerPoint to present and guide the discussion). I talked about the study I led (that included 2 VCU colleagues, another academic colleague from another university and a senior PR practitioner in Atlanta) that examined the interaction of reputation, choice of crisis response strategy and visibility of the CEO in executing that strategy in influencing the attitudes and behavioral objectives of publics toward the company in a crisis. The response was more favorable than I deserved, I’m sure, but there were many questions and even several really good suggestions for future research, such as Aaron’s that it would be interesting to look at whether boards of directors considered representing the company to the public, especially in a crisis, as one of the duties of the CEO and whether it was a factor in making a CEO hiring decision.

And now I’ve got the weekend off. Some exploring, and Baltimore’s famed Artscape tomorrow.

Crisis/crisis prevention plans in the real world

18 Jul

These last two days have brought back so many memories of my years working in corporate PR. Even though the technology is different, the functions of PR have broadened and writing is still the most important skill for a PR practitioner, the urgency surrounding an emergency/crisis/potential crisis has not changed. And I’ve been sitting in the communication “war room,” right in the middle of two days during which the corporate communications department has needed to activate its plans for dealing with emergency situations that give every single employee an important role to play.

Yesterday’s triggering event was word from BGE’s electric grid manager PJM that it was considering calling an electricity emergency, which would require certain levels of cutbacks from each electricity generator in its region to cut back on electric power available to customers. For BGE, this would have meant fully implementing its PeakRewards program: customers voluntarily agreed to cut back their air conditioning/heat pump/water heater output by 100, 75 or 50 percent (they chose their level of reduction). And of course some of those 100 percent volunteers really didn’t understand what they were committing to when signing up; they wanted the $100 credit on their bill. A PR nightmare.

That PJM emergency call didn’t come. But the entire corp comm staff was on alert waiting for word, ready to implement an extremely detailed communication plan. And then BGE decided to voluntarily implement its own reduction policy, cycling air conditioners, etc. to 50 percent of the time they would normally run for those PeakRewards volunteers. When that decision was reached, the corp comm folks went into high gear, implementing the extremely detailed plan for communicating about BGE-called reductions. Every single person has assigned tasks, and the plan was implemented successfully. (And there wasn’t one customer complaint on Facebook or Twitter, although the Peak Rewards call center may have fielded calls.) Luckily the reduction ended after a few hours.

And then today: the double whammy! BGE imposed its own reduction late this morning just as it had the afternoon before. And then came BGE’s decision to implement its severe storm plan in response to weather forecasts for severe thunderstorms in the area. AND the grid folks decided to declare a mandatory emergency reduction. So the corp comm folks had to implement, simultaneously, both its severe storm plan AND its emergency reduction communication plans.

But there were plans, and each person knew what he/she needed to do. Diane Hughes and I had been in a meeting convened by the IT/tech folks about upcoming changes to what customers will be able to do online, and Diane got “the” e-mail notifying her of the severe storm declaration. By the time we got back to her office (a few floors up in the elevator), the grid folks PJM had decided to declare an emergency reduction a couple of hours from then and her staff in social media (and the entire corp comm staff) had already swung into action. TWO plans in motion at the same time.

Boy, did that bring back memories of my days/years at  Continental Bank in Chicago. There’s nothing like the adrenelin generated by these kinds of situations, and I felt my own adrenelin kicking in. Diane’s assignment was to monitor and respond to social media from her home, so she headed for home and I went back to my hotel and monitored BGE’s Facebook and Twitter traffic. Luckily the storm passing through the area seemed to vent most of its force/anger north of Baltimore, and there were relatively few power outages — and/or crabby Tweets and Facebook postings.

A great day for refreshing my rubber-meets-the-road PR knowledge. And a great “story” I can tell my students about how things REALLY are.

First day “on the job”

17 Jul

Information overload today, but I loved it. Dane Hughes, my “mentor”/professional sponsor at Baltimore Gas and Electric, heads up the social media operation/staff for BGE — and that encompasses everything from media relations to web page(s) to use of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube to build relationships with a wide range of audiences. Diane started me out with an overview of the unit (aided by an org chart) and identified the cubicle that will be my “office” for the next 2 weeks.

One of my cubicle neighbors is the social media “guru” (Diane’s term), Ammanuel Moore who has been involved in and actually created BGE’s first social media “product” used in 2010 as a pilot for the Smart Energy Pricing initiative. Ammanuel shared lots of information and report s(monthly and for specific incidents such as the ” Derecho” storm (hurricane force winds but without the warning signs of a building hurricane). BGE uses and to monitor what’s being said about BGE in various social media and is therefore able to prepare detailed reports that address the interests/concerns of executive management re the value of social media. It all revolves around showing how social media contribute to increasing customer satisfaction, a critical factor in influencing favorable outcomes from the state commission hat regulates utilities.

BGE has an ever-evolving training manual regarding what does and does not pass muster as employees’ use social media to initiate contact with customers or respond to customer concerns.

I also spent time with Rachael Lighty, one of two staff members who handles media relations (the other is the VP who heads the entire unit). I found it interesting that all of media relations is considered social media, even the use of traditional news releases (e-maied to reporters who have the energy/public utility “beat” for both local legacy media and trade media) as well as the posting of that information on the BGE blog, Facebook site and via Twitter. So an interesting mix of “traditional” (old-fashioned in that they are the same routes I used as a media relations practitioner in the late 1970s).

One of the day’s highlights was listening on a conference call of a variety of unit staff with a consultant who is helping redesign the BGE website as part of a BGE rebranding effort. Some of the discussion was about very nitty gritty logistics (how to select participants for the upcoming usability testing for a new webpage design template) and at other times, the discussion turned to design-related issues.

Primary impressions: Everything is very fast-paced. All staff need to be up to speed and ready to act/react at a moment’s notice. Multitasking is constant: while Diane was connected to the conference call, for example, she was looking at related documents online, muting the call so she could explain things to me or put things into perspective and context for me, and adding her opinions and recommendations to the conference call discussion. Staff in this unit work hard and they’re not “clock watchers” who come in at a fixed time, go to lunch at a fixed time, etc. In fact, all of the staff with whom I interacted today had either brought their lunch to eat at their desks or went out briefly to bring back lunch to be eaten at their desks. Diane went to a vending machine and bought a serving of noodles that she nuked in the microwave and ate at her desk. I did the go out and get something to bring back routine, and will probably stick with that routine. It’s kind of a relief that these PR/social media staffers don’t feel obligated to entertain me but are allowing me to fit into their routines as if I were one of them.

More tomorrow.

And please excuse clumsy fingers for any typos that spellchecking did not catch.

Hello world!

17 Jul

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