Coping with St Jude Article icon


Plenty of public relations people have tales of operating in the eye of a storm, whether communicating a profit warning, the sacking of a chief executive, a health and safety scare or a political or sex scandal.

Few of these communicators, however, have to do so while sting-jet winds are swirling around at break-neck speeds, disconnecting operations and posing very real risks to the lives and health of key workers and customers.

Welcome to the world of real storm communications. It may only be every 25 years or so that a hurricane or very fierce storm hits these shores, but when it does, communicators at the companies charged with keeping Britain's lights on need to have strategies and emergency plans in place.

The St Jude storm that devastated parts of the south and east of England at the end of October was such an occasion, leading to four deaths and thousands of homes losing power in gusts of up to 99mph.

It posed a particular challenge for UK Power Networks, the former EDF Energy Networks, which owns and maintains electricity cables and lines across London, the south-east and the east of England, covering more than 29,000 sq kilometres from The Wash in the east to the River Arun on the south coast.

The company distributes 27 per cent of the UK's electricity, serving eight million customers in London, the south-east and east of England through 130,000 substations and 170,000 kilometres of overhead lines and underground cables.

Owned by Hong Kong's Cheung Kong Group, it is delivering the largest programme of network investment of any distribution network operator in the current regulatory period.

Liaising with the Met Office

Despite all that, UK Power Networks claims that its London network is the best-performing of any area in the UK in terms of the number and duration of power cuts.

Media relations manager Tracey Elsey says that on Friday, 25 October, the company knew that a storm was coming, due to a grim forecast from the Met Office, with whom it liaises daily.

Its network operations teams alerted the press office, which quickly circulated a communications strategy plan to the board, based on the company's existing crisis communications plan.

Elsey explains: 'We have experienced major storms before so we know what information journalists and the public will want in such a crisis. But what we didn't know was how much damage a sting-jet wind corridor of about 40 miles across would cause to our overhead power lines in a very localised area.

'In parts of Suffolk and Essex, we saw a level of damage comparable to the great storm of 1987 with 7,000 damage points on the network as wind-borne debris hit the lines. The wider picture showed a total of 949,900 properties lost power across the east and south-east of England.'

UK Power Network's storm communications strategy covered drafts of key messages for various stages of the anticipated battering, as well as boosting its in-house communications team of five by booking standby support and information technology links with a specialist external agency.

Preparation is key

Its preparation included lining up access to repair status reports from operations staff and gearing up to permanently man its website and Twitter and Facebook accounts, putting in place processes to ensure that all messages, including conversations between the group customer services centre and individual customers, stayed consistent with the information it planned to give to journalists in a fast-moving situation. Conference calls over the weekend cemented this approach, ready for St Jude to hit the UK on the Monday.

Elsey explains: 'This wasn't destined to be a traditional PR exercise focused on showcasing company services or product virtues. Instead we were at the forefront of a huge effort to ensure that the public and key interested parties, such as local councils and MPs, were kept informed about an ever-changing situation, stayed safe, and knew that we were pulling out all the stops to restore their power.'

On Monday morning, the storm duly arrived in UK Power Network's area and within minutes its communications team started receiving calls from national media, including Sky, CNN and the BBC.

Elsey recalls: 'The wind hadn't yet whistled around our press office building when the media started calling. But, as we had lined up access to reports in advance, we already had figures to give out about how many customers had reported power cuts to us and were able to offer instant interviews.'

That week, the team responded on a 24-hour basis to around 450 media enquiries, 72 of which resulted in TV and radio interviews at power cut locations and from the company's offices. It also proactively issued 22 press releases to all journalists on its contacts lists and callers, sending out news as early as 6am and as late as 9pm.

Elsey explains: 'Our operational colleagues didn't have time to research information about individual power cuts for us while they arranged repairs. But we could give out county updates and other helpful information.

'I joined regular strategic calls to source and verify new news angles and our board of directors were delighted to see the key messages they had discussed being very quickly replicated in the media.

'We kept the Energy Networks Association informed and their spokespeople were a fantastic help in talking about the national picture to the media. We decided to scale up the number of press releases midweek when new information was coming through thick and fast from our operational and customer service colleagues.

Open and transparent

'Our open and transparent approach with the media seemed to be working, as most coverage was informative and positive or neutral in tone. One local radio station was our harshest critic when some customers couldn't get through on our overloaded phone lines but the press office team and director of customer services obliged all their interview requests and were happy to be challenged. There were tough moments but we pressed on confident in the knowledge that more than 1,000 engineers out there and hundreds of customer service staff taking phone calls were doing an exceptional job.

'The engineers restored 91 per cent of power supplies within one day and most media focused on the sheer scale of the effort to restore power supplies.'

Indeed, UK Power Networks featured in about 2,700 media articles relating to the storm, and collated summaries of all the cuttings and broadcast clips for future reference.

Elsey says the team decided early on that it was important to deliver facts and figures about which areas of the UK were its responsibility, the extent of damage to its power lines and the efforts being undertaken to restore customers' power.

This meant being frank about the scale of the problem - the company had 700,000 customers without power at one point - and the number of engineers working to fix the network.

Advice to consumers

In addition, the utility company wanted to offer advice about what to do in a power cut, urging people to stay away from fallen power lines and offering power cut helplines. It also wanted to flag up assistance for vulnerable customers in the form of help centre locations, customer call back options and visits from the British Red Cross, with whom it has a partnership.

It also pointed to media picture and filming opportunities at repair sites and put out the message that compensation payments to 25,000 customers would be doubled as a gesture of goodwill.

Paul Bishop, corporate communications manager at Western Power Distribution, also knows what it's like to be at the heart of a major storm. Owned by America's Pennsylvania Power and Light, it is the UK's second largest power networks group, with 7.8 million customers across the Midlands, Wales and south-west England.

Bishop explains: 'The storm at the end of October didn't hit us anywhere nearly as badly as UK Power Networks, but we still had substantial numbers of people affected and we had an even worse storm the following week.

'It's all about forward planning because we tend to know about these things pretty well in advance, thanks to very close links with the Met Office. We're therefore able to get people at their desks in the communications offices at 5.30am or 6am on days where we think there's going to be a problem and they work through.

'We actually have the largest geographical area of any UK power networks company and we only have nine people in the communications offices so it's quite a challenge.'

At UK Power Networks, Elsey also believes that the company passed mother's nature test. She says: 'We achieved the results we did because we stayed consistent to the key messages, shared information successfully around the company and had specifically set out to personally meet many local journalists during the year so they at least knew what our relatively new company in a complicated energy industry did.

'I am so proud of our small team's commitment and performance under intense pressure. Literally as soon as we put the phone down from one journalist after promising to send them specific information, the phone would ring again.'