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April 21, 2017

Silence is Not an Option

PG&E Provides Another Case Study in How NOT to do Crisis Comms

Today, tens of thousands of San Francisco residents and workers were hit by an extended power outage, and while the internet was abuzz and many people were stranded, PG&E’s website and social media channels were silent. It’s the kind of malpractice that’s certain to spawn yet another round of “hold my beer” Twitter memes comparing PG&E to recent crisis comms failures by United Airlines and Pepsi.

When stuff hits the fan, silence is never the option, especially when it comes to essential services that affect so many people. And especially if the problem is in one of your facilities.

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At 9:07am, power suddenly shut down across the city, with no rain or wind to quickly explain the sudden outage. I was safely at home with a charged laptop, phone and the petty complaint of not being able to make a cup of coffee, and had power again in a little over an hour. But those in the financial district were not so lucky. Workers were trapped in elevators, commuters were stranded in the Montgomery BART station, drivers were stuck in massive traffic jams caused by intersections without traffic lights. Many companies ultimately had to close for the day and send workers down the stairs to go home when they were still without power hours later with no estimate for its return.

But if you checked the PG&E website or Twitter in the morning, there was no indication of the frenzy. The PG&E outage page had no listings for the area, there were no tweets from @PGE4me handle since April 18, and an article time stamped in the 9 o’clock hour (but later updated) noted that PG&E was not available for comment:

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The notorious @SFBART handle confirmed at 9:20am that the outage began at 9:15, more than 20 minutes before @PGE4ME confirmed the outage, causing PG&E and emergency services lines to be jammed with calls from residents concerned about the outage. The SFPD even tweeted a map from @monkeybrainsnet that showed the full outage compared to what PG&E was publishing.

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In the age of instant news and computers in everyone’s pocket, it’s imperative for companies to react, and react quickly, especially companies charged with an essential service that is creating safety hazards across town. PG&E is lucky no serious injuries have been reported due to the outage, but waiting for three hours into the outage to address safety concerns is an inexcusable failure of customer service and crisis communications 101.

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