For a Power Utility, a Heat Wave’s a Bad Time for Self-Reflection

Like many in the U.S., I’ve been doing my best to stay cool in the midst of record-breaking heat the last couple of weeks.

Living in the Washington, D.C. area, temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s have become the norm of late. In a word, it’s been unbearable.

A little over a week ago, our area was hit with a storm that lasted maybe an hour, but when it was over, the damage was astounding as thousands in the region were left without power. It couldn’t have come at a worse time as no power in a heat wave is a recipe for disaster.

As I watched the news and listened to friends, family and co-workers here at PR News talk about how their experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder how Pepco, the electric provider of D.C. and suburban Maryland, was handling this crisis from a PR standpoint.  People still without power, three and four days after the storm hit, didn’t exactly add up with what the company has said in its print and TV campaign over the past year—that it was “Ready for Everything.” With every hour without power, consumer faith in Pepco decreased as the temperature increased. As complaints poured in, there had to be a response to what was going on.

To Pepco’s credit, every day there was a press release posted on its site to keep consumers up to speed on the progress made that day and what was to be expected as time progressed. Thomas Graham, Pepco’s regional president, made the rounds on local television stations. Pepco was well aware of the unhappiness of those in the area, but that didn’t seem to matter as the complaints kept pouring in. Based on similar situations in the past, Pepco’s communications team was dealing with consumers who hadn’t forgotten the company’s poor performance in the past—most recently, when the company received a $1 million fine in December 2011 from the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Mike Rosenwald of the Washington Post spoke with Felecia Greer, director and consumer advocate for Pepco, to get her response as the voice of the customer and to gauge her feelings on how she felt her company performed.

“This was a regional event, a severe weather event,” she told Rosenwald. “We are gonna have to let the process play out. I am comfortable that we will be able to demonstrate that our performance, considering the event”—and then a slight pause—“that we performed well considering the severity of the event.”

The statement is in line with what many have complained about: Pepco is responding, but still more concerned about highlighting its own “achievements” rather than listening to what the consumers and others are complaining about.

So like many residents, Pepco has been feeling the heat, just in a different way. It seems they still have a ways to go before things cool off.

—Jamar Hudson, senior editor, PR News

Follow Jamar Hudson: @jamarhudson