Friday, November 20, 2015
ComEd Case Analysis
By Syed Asad Raza, Hakan Yerlikaya and Kathryn Ryan
The issue of responding to natural disasters is an issue that will affect most people during their lifetimes. While we do not all live in hurricane or earthquake zones, everyone experiences bad weather and most people will experience power outages. The Commonwealth Edison case is an important case study because it highlights how social media can now be used to improve the response to outages caused by natural disasters or other events by utilities and helps us understand the debate between weather public utilities or private utilities like Commonwealth Edison are better equipped to respond to the needs of their customers during storms.
The July Commonwealth Edison storm’s place in social media history
It is important to remember the timing of the July 11 storm that effected the Chicago area and Commonwealth Edison’s customers. The storm hit during a period when the public’s use of social media was growing rapidly. The 2011 storm came just five years after the founding of Twitter in 2006 and only a few short years after the 2009 Twitter revolt in Iran and the 2008 elections in which United States President Barack Obama successfully utilities social media for fundraising and organizing during his presidential campaign. Corporations, government entities and ordinary citizens were beginning to see the power and usefulness of social media.
After struggling with its response to past storms Commonwealth Edison recognized that its consumers were using social media and implemented a plan to address their concerns through social media platforms as well as its website and communication tools (eChannels). The ComEd case came about during a period when Social media had been proliferated across the United States and had become the new norm in most communities. ComEd recognized the value of sites like Facebook and Twitter at a time when many other utility companies were not investing in social media, and although its Twitter and Facebook pages had only a few hundred followers, it did what it could to keep its members informed through social media tools.
How Commonwealth Edison used Socıal Medıa to ımprove theır response to the outages
In the aftermath of July 2011 storm, ComEd developed wıth a robust socıal medıa strategy to better engage with the public and ensure that the concerns of utility customers are being met, in as close to real time as possible.
The company listened to the criticisms of customers, including the feeling that the company was failing to address their needs on an individual level, giving basic and scares feedback rather than personal feedback. The company implemented a plan for better responding to the needs and concerns of customers during outage events which took advantage of existing social media tools to ensure a personalized response to storms and power outages. The main tactic used by the company that was seen as a major improvement from the July storm was the development of a plan to respond to every tweet sent to the ComEd twitter feed and developed a hashtag system for future storms that would allow ComEd to stay connected with eh public and keep the public informed.
The company created an innovative social strategy that was aligned with their business strategy and Integrated social media into business and critical response operations. The company did not simply develop a Facebook page or Twitter account that was managed by one person doing several jobs, instead created a department (eChannels) to communicate with customers by all electronic means. This allowed the company to respond to every tweet and Facebook post sent in. during the storm outlined in this case study the company was successful in responding to incoming social media communications, keeping its promise to respond to everyone. The eChannels department which combined social media tools with the Commonwealth Edison static webpage and other existing communication tools offered a unique opportunity for the company to monitor and respond to the concerns of employees. It would have likely been more challenging for the company to keep its promise to be more transparent with the public if social media responsibilities were given to a person or team doing multiple jobs, by focusing an entire team on social media the company was able to ensure that its social media plan was not overlooked.
This tactic may be one of the most important lessons from the ComEd case, many organizations do not devote an entire team to social media and communications with the public (mostly because of the experience associated with staffing such a team). However, having a social media team creates a greater ability to respond to the concerns of the public and customers in real time, which can ultimately lead to more success for the company, agency or organization and leads to a better relationship with the public.
Negative aspects of the response
While Commonwealth Edison implemented several innovative ideas in developing its social media plan the company still experienced many shortcomings and its response to the storm remains controversial. Several issues arose during the response, for example. Using eChannels the company directed the customers who posted about outage in their area to go to the company website or to call the company line. This was an extra burden on customer who were already facing inconvenience of not having power. We would argue that it could have better integrated the power outage reporting into social network rather than focusing on redirecting to the static site. ComEd could have also more rapidly posted responses to customers personalized information (as it became available) regarding when the outage would be fixed and what they could do if they needed access to power or to remain safe with no power.
It is important to note that despite the implementation of the E-channels plan Commonwealth Edison was still criticized by many residents of Illinois. The whitepaper issued by the Northwest Municipal Conference regarding the company’s response to the July 2011 storm criticized the response in a White Paper addressing the storm. An Illinois court agreed with the criticism and ordered the company to pay damages to users in 2014. The court found that Commonwealth Edison customers experienced power outages that were twice as long as they needed to be, resulting in loss of food and other monetary damages. This highlights that a response is about more than social media, the right tools and people need to be on the ground to respond to an outage. While we believe the eChannels approach was relatively strong an innovative for the time, it seems that the court has found that the response was still too slow.
The success of the social media response compared with the apparent failure of the ‘boots on the ground’ teams at ComEd (those working on the field to get electricity back on line) may point to a need for greater coordination between the social media team and other ComEd employers (perhaps through intraweb and better cellular communications during storm events) and may also speak to the ComEd leadership’s need to better invest in and divide up its limited resources to make sure that adequate personnel is available to both respond to the questions and concerns of the public and do the physical work needed to get the power back on.
Private vs. Public Utilities: Corporation v Bureaucracy
The Commonwealth Edison case highlights an important debate; whether or not public (government owned and controlled utilities) or private (corporate owned) utilities are better equipped to address the needs of utility consumers. In this case Commonwealth Edison successfully addressed its shortcoming in responding to early storms and outages during the summer of 2011 and implemented its eChannels plan in time for the July storm, which aided in its response which, though not perfect, was able to use social media to better listen to customer concerns.
It can be argued that government, which tends to be bureaucratic, slow moving and risk adverse, would not have implemented changes so quickly or would have been less willing to take risks of sharing or reporting false information on social media. This perception comes from the fact that government employees are beholden to their governing bodies and ultimately the voters.
While we tend to see private corporations as more independent this is not always the case. Under American corporations law a corporation owes certain fiduciary duties to its shareholders, meaning it cannot act against their interests of the shareholders. While we often think of corporations as risk taking entities in comparison to government entities, it is important to note that because of these fiduciary duties to shareholders some corporations can become just as risk adverse as government agency employees who are beholden executives within the agency and ultimately the voters of a community.
The apparent divide between public and private utilities may be cultural. Corporate culture values risk-takers while government culture values steadiness (according to the stereotype). Instead of making dramatic policy changes or changing all utilities to private utilities in response to Commonwealth Edison’s successes government actors should learn from this case and become more willing to take risks to better service their communities.
Another divide between corporate (private) and government (public) actors is economic resources. While not all companies have large budgets, companies like ComEd, one of the largest utilities in the region, can afford to invest in a social media department and hire a team whose job it is to explicitly focus on social media and reaching out to the public. This is a luxury that is not always available to public entities whose budgets are often derived from tax dollars and grants and cannot always invest the resources in an independent social media team and must instead give these tasks to persons who have additional jobs to complete.
Budget may be a key divide between public and private actors but social media tools like Facebook and Twitter help close that gap. However, devoting an entire team to monitor these feeds may be a luxury some actors will find difficult to obtain.