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The coronavirus pandemic may seem different, but it's a crisis that requires crisis communications techniques

image credit: © Mikhail Nekrasov |

Since global pandemics are, thankfully, rare — unless you’re measuring their frequency in geologic time — the current one seems unprecedented to nearly everyone and everything going through it.

Despite that, it is still recognizable as something all too common: a crisis. As a result, large corporations, including electric utilities, should be treating it as one in their communications to the public. That means familiarizing themselves with best practices for crisis communications and keeping track of strategies that work so they can not only be used in future crises but, if feasible, be integrated into regular communications efforts as well.

“In the long term, that is how you really get effective at crisis management,” said Megan Paquin, a vice president with Poston Communications who specializes in crisis communications and litigation public relations.

In a phone call with me, Paquin said there are four types of general crises that organizations face:

  • Direct crises, which involve something like a CEO’s death or a scandal of some sort;
  • Indirect crises, which involve an organization’s affiliates, or other organizations in the same field;
  • Private crisis, such as investigations into an organizations or threats made against it that never are publicly revealed;
  • And public crises, such as a hurricane or the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic is similar to other crises people and organizations face in that it forces them to make rapid decisions, often with less information than they’d like. It differs from other crises, however, by not having a set duration. For example, although there are uncertainties about a hurricane's track and intensity until it hits, once it’s come and gone, the time needed to do everything from damage assessment to infrastructure repair can be gleaned pretty quickly and accurately based on experiences with similar storms. In contrast, no one knows how long the pandemic will last and therefore how long the societal restrictions put in place to deal with it need to remain in effect, or if they’ll have to be reimplemented.

Those things, plus the sheer amount of news about the pandemic create an amount of noise that’s hard for communications to cut through. As a result, the messaging strategy that’s best to follow is probably the one summarized in the acronym KISS — Keep it simple, stupid. People only have so much mental bandwidth, so utilities need to make sure they’re giving their customers the news they need.

For many utilities, that means letting their customers know that they’re not going to shut off their power for missed payments. Those utilities that have implemented no shutoff policies, however, also must make sure their customers know (if the utilities know) when they will resume shut-offs, and how the customers can get financial assistance with their bills if they likely won’t be able to pay them when shutoffs are resumed.

That’s what Pittsburgh utilities are trying to do. Even though the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission imposed a moratorium on shutoffs on March 13, Pittsburgh-area utilities say they haven’t seen an increase in calls to their assistance lines so they’re trying to ensure their customers know that they should seek assistance before the moratorium is lifted.

“We have not yet seen a large increase in customers taking advantage of [customer assistance] programs, but we know they will be needed,” Matt McDonald, a spokesman for Duquesne Light, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One way to make sure customers know about those programs is to help with stories such as the one in the Post-Gazette, but there are others, too. Utilities should make sure their websites' home pages contain easily visible links to pages about the programs and other coronavirus-related information they want their customers to be aware of. They should also make sure they promote the programs in the emails they send out to their customers, although they also need to be wary of sending out so many emails that their customers stop reading them. Additionally, they should offer (and promote) webinars and online chats about the programs. And they should make sure they’re set up to handle increased call volume on their assistance program lines, so customers don’t gripe that their calls took too long to get answered.

Utilities that do those things can see a boost to their reputation with customers, but Paquin cautions that it will only last three to six months unless they continue their customer-engagement efforts after the pandemic ends.

“People have a short attention span,” she said.









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