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Harnessing the Power of Social Media During a Natural Disaster

For most mid-sized to large business, incorporating social media into your marketing and customer-service mix is no longer an option—it’s expected. Social media provides businesses with a great way to listen to and engage with customers and provide timely and relevant updates.

Hurricane Irene Makes Landfall Over NYC - August 28, 2011

Image Credit: NASA

In fact, it doesn’t have to be used at all for marketing purposes, especially if your business is in a highly regulated industry—or if you don’t have a thoughtful social media strategy that works in concert with your overall marketing plan, or simply don’t have the marketing staff to use it effectively. This past weekend during Hurricane Irene, I had the time and opportunity to observe two local/regional business—PPL and RCN—use social media with varying degrees of success. Out of that experience I came up with a number of “Do’s and Don’ts” that I think many other businesses can benefit from as well.

DISCLOSURE: I am a customer of both companies—residential and business.

DO establish social media outposts and actively monitor and leverage them.

For all but the largest businesses and organizations, being everywhere that your customers need you is nearly impossible. Service requests and repairs need to be triaged. But social media can help set expectations for your customers as you make your priorities clear.

PPL, for example, made a very strong push on Twitter BEFORE the storm, getting out the word to follow them and also what to expect in the days ahead.

During the storm, PPL was proactively Tweeting status updates, answering questions, directing people on where to get more help, and providing anxious customers with some level of comfort. This provided a tremendous level of security and confidence in the company.

DON’T set up social media accounts and then fail to monitor them (or use them only for one-way communication.

RCN also knew that Hurricane Irene was going to be a bad storm and were expecting significant storm-related issues. However, based on a review of their Twitter stream and a review of their website, they took no proactive steps prior to the storm, provided no updates during the storm, and made halfhearted update efforts via Twitter in the storm’s wake.

RCN has, and promotes having, a Facebook page, but where the cable company has at least a “reactive” presence on Twitter, their Facebook page is largely used for product and service updates and little else of value.

To be successful with social media, businesses need to realize that it’s not one way, from business to customer—it’s a dialogue, a conversation. That means equal parts talking and listening. With the two companies above, it’s clear to see which one “gets it” and which one doesn’t. Done well it can win your business praise and patience. Done poorly, it will win you ridicule and resentment. It also takes a commitment – of time, resources, etc. – to do effectively. It’s easy to tell the difference between a company who is invested in their social media strategy and those that simply consider it an adjunct or distraction. To quote Yoda: “Do or do not… there is no try.”

DO use social media your social media outposts to push out updates, allow people to report issues, and channel people to other resources that may be useful to them.

PPL, in my opinion, executed an almost textbook social media response to Hurricane Irene. They presented a personable voice of the company, were extremely responsive, kept long hours, and generally provided an exceptional amount of value in their communications.

They responded to my own outage report via Twitter, routed me to their Outage Center (could have been trouble had I not had a smart phone—but the process was simple to do otherwise) and had a crew on the scene in under an hour. Even now they continue to post updates, shout-outs, and stats about what they are experiencing.

DO monitor your social media outposts regularly, especially during a natural disaster or other situation where customers are expecting to provide and receive feedback.

One of the most powerful aspects of social media is the fact that it is a great equalizer. Everybody has access to the same platforms. What differs is the level of planning, and level of commitment to executing your plan.

RCN services a healthy chunk of the East Coast and everyone who lives here knew that the situation was going to be bad from North Carolina to Maine. What I suspect happened is that RCN simply hasn’t bought into to using social media as an official customer support tool, and therefore left the person or people responsible for the function largely on their own.

Regardless of the situation, the manner in which RCN is using social media for customer service is ineffective. No useful information is being pushed out—status updates, stats, tips, possible work-arounds. Simply repeating that they are working “24×7” to restore service, and that there are still widespread outages, isn’t helpful. Cable, phone and Internet have become essential utilities for many people, especially businesses.

DO be transparent, honest and professional in all of your communications.

What I really appreciated about PPL’s communication via Twitter is how open and honest they’ve been. They’ve talked about who’s doing what and where they are working as well as shared progress, statistics and where to go for help.

RCN’s communication, on the other hand, lacking any specificity or sincerity. Customers want to know that they’re being heard and they also want to know that their specific issue is being addressed. Anything less causes uncertainty and resentment.

Additionally, if you review the individual Twitter streams from both companies it doesn’t take long to see a certain lack of professionalism and polish in RCN’s account. If it’s part of your support and/or marketing mix, it’s a reflection on your company. Typographical errors, grammatical mistakes, etc. make your business look less professional. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t be conversational, hip and/or folksy, but it still needs to be treated like any other official communication channel. You wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) send out a press release with typos, so why would Tweet something teeming with them? Social media operates in real time, so speed is important—but so is quality.


It may appear that I’m unfairly bashing RCN while singing the praises of PPL, but that’s not my goal in writing about my experience. I think both companies did some things right, and in my opinion PPL did more. However, what I really wanted to do was to highlight some of the good and some of the bad of what I saw and share it as a starting point for future discussion. There really is a lot to be learned from both of these companies.

The key takeaway? As more of your customers embrace social media, your marketing and customer support functions need to do the same. Consumers expect you to be responsive, sincere and honest. Failure to do so could cost you their business and the business of their friends and family. That’s a pretty high price to pay for not being ready and willing to embrace change.

What did you experience during and after Hurricane Irene? Did you have a similar or different experience with one of these two companies, or perhaps a different company? How prepared are you if disaster were to strike your organization? Let me know in the comments below.