In late January, Consumers Energy experienced a fire at a natural gas compressor station in northern Macomb County. The situation would have been a crisis for Consumers Energy at any time of the year, but the fact that it happened during several days of subzero temperatures and record gas consumption made things more serious.

From a communications standpoint, Consumers Energy had a tall order to communicate the situation and provide updates to the public. The effort wasn’t perfect, but overall, we think Consumers Energy did a good job communicating the situation. Here are a few reasons why:

Preparation

It’s important to prepare a crisis plan and practice responding ahead of an actual crisis, but even the best plans need to be adjusted on the fly. Consumers Energy’s quick response timing and the integration of messaging between stakeholders and communication platforms is indicative of a company who planned well in advance. It was also helpful that Consumers Energy proactively builds relationships with the community and its stakeholders. Strong social content prior to the crisis built trust within their online communities and helped them balance the negative response with Consumers Energy advocates. The strong relationships with business customers also played to their advantage when several high gas-using companies agreed to close shop to reduce the demand in such trying times.

Response Timing

Overall, Consumers Energy’s response time was good but had some flaws. From what we could gather, their first public comment appeared nearly an hour after the fire appeared on social media followed by a press release with an official statement, press conference and additional updates throughout the day. The initial response and official statement could have been quicker, but the biggest timing hiccup happened when the state issued an emergency alert at 10:30 p.m. after many residents were tucked into their warm beds. The timing added more anger to customers who were already displeased. If the coordination with the Governor’s office and the corresponding alerts happened a few hours earlier, they may not have received as much negativity about the issue because of the late-night alert.

Messaging

Consumers Energy’s messaging balanced a fine line of offering empathetic messages to the public while also conveying the seriousness of the issue. When Consumers Energy first asked for residents to turn down their thermostats, many residents outright refused – a major problem for Consumers Energy. Thankfully their brand ambassadors showed up to counter the naysayers which are what communicators always aim for in these types of crisis situations.

Consumers Energy did an effective job communicating its messages consistently across all its communications platforms including traditional media, social media and the company website, a nice example of integrated communications.

In addition, Consumers Energy and the state delivered consistent messaging and built off one another rather than stepping on each others’ toes. It’s clear the Joint Information System model – a system that ensures coordination and integration of information across jurisdictions, organizations, and agencies during an incident – was followed to achieve the high level of communication between the two parties.

Flexibility and Transparency

During the crisis, Consumers Energy and Gov. Whitmer showed strong flexibility and adaptation to the public outcry. As customers continued to refuse to turn down their thermostats, the governor tweeted a photo of her thermostat to show her compliance to the request – a good move. In addition, Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe made an urgent plea to the public for cooperation via Facebook Live in an effort to not only provide an update, but to address the noncompliance.

(Gov. Whitmer posted a photo of her thermostat to show that she was complying with the request to reduce temperature settings during the crisis.)

Taking Action

One of the main questions a company should try to answer following any crisis is “how can we prevent this from happening in the future?” In Poppe’s testimony before the House Energy Committee Feb 20, she announced Consumers Energy plans to rewrite its contingency plans to increase its resiliency and promised to become less reliant on the Macomb County compressor station that caught fire triggering the crisis. Another good move from a crisis response standpoint.

What’s the latest?

According to Poppe, two of the station’s plants will remain out of service for at least the next few months, but the majority of the crisis is over. Residents have the supplies they need and sentiment towards Consumers Energy is back to normal. In fact, it didn’t take long after Consumers Energy gave the “all clear” to get closer to business-as-usual amounts of news coverage and sentiment.

(Negative sentiment increased during the crisis, but it didn’t take long after Consumers Energy gave the “all clear” to return to pre-crisis sentiment levels.)

(Crisis issues can escalate quickly. Consumers Energy saw a more than 1,300% increase in media mentions during the 3-day crisis as compared to the 3 days leading up the fire. Similarly, the sharing of Consumers Energy media stories on social media increased by more than 7,300 percent.)

What can other organizations learn from Consumers Energy?

We feel Consumers Energy deserves accolades for their response effort. Below are a few things any company can learn from their situation:

  • Have a crisis plan and practice the plan.
  • Understand how quickly crisis issues can escalate. Consumers Energy experienced an incredible volume of traditional and social media mentions in a short time.
  • In advance of a crisis, understand if and when you might reach out to different stakeholder groups.
  • Proactively build positive relationships with the community and stakeholders because it can only help during times of crisis.
  • Be as transparent, nimble and adaptive as possible as a crisis unfolds.
  • Following the crisis, make the changes necessary to prevent the situation from recurring.

Interested in learning more about crisis response best practices? Contact us today.

Joe Ferlito is an account manager at Franco. You can reach him at ferlito@franco.com.