Josephine Posti, an external affairs specialist for Pennsylvania American Water, was feeling the heat when her utility experienced a major emergency event four years ago. A power outage was impacting water service for thousands of ratepayers in Washington, PA, and Posti was in charge of keeping them informed.
“I was calling the print reporters we work with to give them updates once every hour,” remembered Posti. “It was somewhat stressful to do so, and finally one of the reporters asked me why I didn’t just tweet these updates. We weren’t really using social media at the time, and when she asked that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh — that would be so much easier!’”
Soon after, PA American Water launched a Facebook page and Twitter feed. Today, it has over 4,000 “likes” on Facebook and over 1,000 followers on Twitter. Six months ago, it added YouTube to its social media arsenal.
“Even if we don’t have electricity, we can give real-time updates on what is happening during an emergency just by using our smartphones,” said Posti. “It is what our customers expect now.”
PA American Water is not alone. Utilities all over the world are discovering that social media can be an effective, and often necessary, tool to communicate with ratepayers.
Utilities Kingston, a multi-utility provider of water, wastewater, gas, and electricity services in Kingston, Ontario, has been actively using social media since 2011. Currently, it has over 2,000 followers on Twitter and over 1,000 likes on Facebook.
Consumer outreach during an emergency or a service disruption is the primary function of Utilities Kingston social media accounts.
“It is really important that people receive timely information during a crisis, and social media is the way to do it,” said Martina Tremmel, communications advisor for the utility. “Whenever there is a water disruption, we use social media as well as other methods to let our customers know where it is, what kind it is, what to do, and when they can expect the service to be reinstated.”
Social media can be an effective way to communicate with customers on the go. PA American Water traditionally used auto-dialers to contact many ratepayers via their home phones during an emergency. But as more people move away from landlines, this practice is becoming less effective.
“Some people are choosing to mostly use their cell phones,” said Posti. “Others have landlines, but they don’t check them often, so they aren’t getting messages in time.”
Even customers who are not using Facebook or Twitter can indirectly benefit from utilities’ use of social media. Traditional media outlets often turn to utilities’ social media accounts for information. By providing regular updates via social media channels, utilities can help prevent the media from publishing stories based on misinformation, for instance when journalists cannot get into direct contact with a representative from the utility.
“Our relationship with the traditional media is changing because of social media, “said Tremmel. “Before it was all through press releases, now the radio will pick up sound bites right off Twitter.”
Utilities Kingston also reported that its call center has had an easier time handling the customer calls it gets, because it is receiving a lower smaller volume of calls as some customers turn to social media instead.
Social media isn’t only useful during a crisis. It can also serve as a way to educate consumers on the value of their water services.
“A big part of our social media strategy is explaining everything that goes into treating your water,” said Posti. “When you offer a behind-the-scenes look at something that you take for granted, like water, it kind of gets people to say, ‘Wow, I turn my facet on every day, and I’ve never really thought about how it all works.’ It is important to keep things like that top of mind.”
PA American Water has made a recent effort to produce videos with commentary on important topics in the industry. The utility has created and shared videos on everything from cold weather preparation and how to avoid frozen pipes, to how rates are determined and water treatment methods.
Social media can also help convince ratepayers to support expensive projects. Last year, PA American Water took a local elected official on a tour inside a storage tank that was empty due to rehab. The utility used the opportunity to allow customers to ask questions via social media.
“We had traditional print reporters with us, but we were also able to live tweet from the event,” said Posti. “When you offer up something like taking a tour of a water treatment plant, that is something that most people never have the opportunity to do. It shows them why we invest in rehabbing our water tanks, why they are important.”
Utilities Kingston has also used social media to influence its customers. It runs campaigns, which utilize social media along with other channels, on topics it needs its customers to better understand. Last year, for example, it ran a campaign educating consumers of the detrimental impact of flushable wipes on wastewater utilities. The campaign made a difference.
“In the few months that followed, there was a reduction in the amount of wipes clogging our system,” said Tremmel. “Now it is increasing a bit, because it really needs to be top of mind. But we will do another campaign soon, and we hope it works again.”
The utility has also conducted campaigns on water conservation methods, stormwater runoff prevention, and the importance of water treatment. All have met with positive feedback. “We find that we have a really supportive social media community,” explained Tremmel.
Social media also makes it easier for customers to ask questions and understand what changes are happening in their communities regarding the water utility. Water infrastructure repairs are a hot topic on PA American Water’s social media channels.
“We’ve seen an increase in customer interaction,” said Posti. “People have suggestions, questions. In that venue you can answer a question for one person that many people have, instead of answering the same question over and over.”
Not all questions can be answered via social media. Unlike a call center, utilities typically don’t have someone managing Facebook and Twitter 24/7. This can lead to problems when customers use the medium to ask billing questions, or questions that require immediate assistance.
“One thing we do try and remind our customers on social media is that when they need account information, the best resource is still our 800 number,” said Posti.
Negativity on social media can also be an issue. At Utilities Kingston there was some concern about dissatisfied customers filling social media pages with complaints.
“There was a lot of hesitation because people were worried about getting flack, by putting ourselves out there,” explained Tremmel. “But if you just give a human voice and don’t come off sounding like a robot, it can be a very positive way of handling people’s concerns.”
Determining who will update and manage social media accounts can also be a challenge for utilities. Municipalities without a designated communications department may need to get creative. Tremmel suggests asking employees to do their part by sharing photos and information about their daily jobs on either their own social media accounts or the corporate social media account. The more employees get involved with social media efforts, the more robust and effective they will be, she said.
“If you get 20 of our employees sharing that information with their followers, it really gets the message out there,” Tremmel suggested. “We are working to develop guidelines, and we have events to show employees how to set up Twitter accounts and use them.”
It is also worthwhile to dedicate a single person to the overall management of the account, even if it is just a small part of their job.
“You need someone who can take ideas and run with them,” said Tremmel.
Although it may be challenging for some utilities to move into social media, Posti feels it is a necessity.
“I am surprised that some utilities still have not jumped in as much as they can into social media,” said Posti. “I think that even small water authorities can get involved in social media, and the reality is that customers expect information in the format that is convenient to them. Social media is something that everyone needs to add into their toolbox.”
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