Scaling and Managing PR 2.0 Expectations
A feature interview with Ike Pigott, communication strategist with Alabama Power—a part of Southern Company that serves 1.4-million customers in the lower 3/4 of the state of Alabama.
Please provide a brief backgrounder, including your contributions to Alabama Power in building up and scaling its social media presence.
When I came to Alabama Power almost five years ago, there wasn’t a social media program—there really wasn’t a place for it within existing units. My original role was to edit the company’s intranet news site, which proved a fantastic place to learn the business quickly and assimilate the corporate culture. At the front end there was discussion about having my previous experience [social media and crisis communication] “in the hip pocket” for a day when the need might arise.
After about a year, I began proactively claiming the company username on major social sites, strictly as a preventative measure. Along the way, I was able to earn buy-in with my supervisor and other key managers, by sharing things being said about the company online. For management that was an eye-opener. So with the added attention to the listening and monitoring function, we were able to reconfigure some things. Eventually I was researching and building our long-term social media strategy and earning more buy-in from other departments.
Alabama Power’s strategic issues group evolved later and “social” proved a good fit for it; we wanted to be flexible about when and where social might be applied. As a new group, it didn’t have any legacy silo issues. Better yet, we were able to show real value quite quickly.
We’ve since reshuffled again. I now report through the media relations team (including serving as a public spokesperson for the utility) and we have a more defined structure: the social media advisory council (SMAC).
My role in SMAC allows me interact, as needed, with virtually any department in the enterprise. SMAC comprises those across the company who “get it,” and we counsel internal groups on best practices as a social business.
In taking a “deep-employment dive” into a utilities company with a great service reputation, what type of operational or cultural character and values mindshare have you acquired? How does that impact your counsel to Alabama Power?
A former supervisor and I used to say this about our culture: “If we were a basketball team, we’d rather be 5-0 than 81-1.”
To some extent it’s true. Caution and safety are at the heart of every power company. If not, then people get hurt. For the most part our leadership comes from the engineering and legal fields—tending to be very conservative and cautious.
Early in the communication strategist role I had to figure out other aspects of our culture that were most congruent to social media. I found two. Our company places a huge emphasis on:
- information sharing; and
- relationship management
Personal connections are very important and given the nature of our business as a regulated, investor-owned utility, we have to cultivate and foster relationships with every type of person you can imagine.
I wrote a post for Social Media Explorer a couple of years ago, The ROI of Rotary, channeling this breakthrough. Social media, amongst other things, are technologies that share information, and can be used to manage and nurture relationships. Suddenly, in that context, Twitter becomes something other than empty ham sandwich observations, and has value to the enterprise.
Social media allows you to cultivate the network that makes you smarter.
Which Alabama Power function or type of employee has delighted you in their understanding and appreciation about executing a comprehensive social business strategy and tactics?
On the internal side of things, our environmental affairs staff accepted Yammer early on. It was a great “use” case for them, as employees are spread out over so many facilities in the state. And we would still be spinning a lot of wheels if our customer service organization had not embraced using Twitter and Facebook channels for direct service and inquiries. They are still learning and incubating and building up, but I am impressed with the resources and commitment they are bringing to bear. It’s all about making the customer happy, by being where they are.
Outside of that, I do hear from a lot of our executives about things they find on Twitter. Most of them haven’t tweeted anything, but they are following the topics and people of interest, and using that active listening to inform our strategic direction. I could not be prouder of our executive in incorporating social into their intelligence mix.
What can you say about the social decorum of Alabama Power employees in general and what kind of policies are in place or being developed to assist them as brand champions regarding messaging and etiquette?
Given our culture, I am not really concerned about decorum. I am surrounded by professionals here, in every sense of the word. Once they see that it’s not that big a leap from our “Southern-style” expectations of conduct, to being in a public space, there isn’t much to fear at all.
As for specific policies, most of our social media policy and guidelines already existed in Alabama Power’s Electronic Use Policies.
Readers are encouraged to listen to the podcast (or read the transcript) of Social Pros Podcast: Real People Doing Real Work in Social Media (episode 18) where you were the featured guest. In particular, the part related to managing expectations about using Twitter as a customer service platform. I particularly appreciated where you explain the internal customer service forum used to develop protocols for responding.
For the longer-term, what are challenges to surmount in social customer service?
Every customer interaction is special. In one respect, we are a victim of our own success. Most of our customers never think of us at all, taking us for granted, unless their power goes out or they get a bill. Most of the time, those are accompanied by negative feelings. So when a customer does reach out to us, we want to make it a priority to reinforce what we want them to know. They are special, and they do matter to us. If a small percentage of them—even if it’s just five per cent—want to engage with us via social channels, then we are respecting their wishes by being there for them.
The more options we can open for them as transactional channels, the happier they are likely to be.
Scaling up does require resources, and in this case it requires building-out two key points:
- human voice; and
- choice in engagement
Every other interaction we have with customers is always initiated by the customer. They call, they walk into an office or they send an email.
But in social channels, we might eavesdrop on a need and take the first step to fill it. That’s a new skill for us to incorporate. Also, the things we say over the phone—even when scripted—can be made warmer and more welcoming by a human voice.
We are trying to figure out how to ensure that our online care team “humanizes” the text, which is absent of inflection or conversational tone. We simply must inject more personality into the responses, without going overboard.
It can be done; it’s just not something that we’ve got decades of experience in developing.
In looking at your alabamapowernews.com site (which you’ve married to the Alabama Power Posterous-hosted blog) I nodded in approval at how it is identified—what it is about, who is responsible for its content, a link to the Twitter account and news release section, plus two telephone numbers for contact. It is right in line with recommendations in Nutrition Byte about managing channel expectations for needs and wants!
Although this property has corporate communications as the lead (specifically the corporate media relations team), do other properties have a different department or team heading up the content and/or resulting queries?
Currently channels are shared. Public relations is gathering and editing the content to be posted on social properties, and customer service is answering customer issues as they see them.
We do have dedicated Twitter feeds for our spokespeople in other TV markets for talking with their local media. The accounts are closed by design, because none of my counterparts in those other cities have the resources to answer the inevitable customer questions that would come.
Your take [in Nutrition Byte] is spot on—we are very cognizant that the ownership of a channel must come with intent, a content plan and managed expectations.
We have several of our volunteer service organization units around the state that are operating their own Facebook Pages, to promote local events. We support them with best practices and ideas, but they are running those accounts themselves.
Speaking of intent, where does Alabama Power sit regarding “brand journalism” content?
From a brand journalism perspective, we are finding that with a declining media workforce, we simply have to get out in front and tell our story. The more we can do to help the media by having information online the better.
But if some of the audience bypasses the traditional channels and gets it straight from us, that’s a boon.
How are you measuring success as a social utility?
At this point, our traffic is so variable, traditional metrics don’t matter as much; it’s still too event-driven.
For example, our Twitter account leveraged nearly 3.5-million potential impressions from January 1 through March 17 of this year. But the next seven days had more than 13-million impressions.
While our audience growth is healthy, we still get more bang internally from anecdotal successes. For example, those issues where our quick work pleased a customer or provided us with intelligence about an issue that might have gone poorly for us.
Listening is still the gold mine, and we’re getting smarter about engagement all the time.
What do you present about at events such as the December 2011 EUCI Social Media for Utilities training workshop?
And who else is doing a great job at being a “social” utilities business?
Most of my industry-related talks have been about crisis and disaster communications, highlighting our use of Twitter during the April 2011 tornado outbreak. I’ve also shared presentations about corporate storytelling and gaining management and employee buy-in.
As a whole, the utility industry is somewhat behind the curve found in the competitive retail space. There isn’t as much incentive for a power company to steal mindshare from others, nor to attract attention for attention’s sake. I am proud that we’ve done some things at Alabama Power, atypical for utilities. For example, we did an integrated social campaign around our Renew Our Rivers program, including the company’s first blog, and tied into a Twitter feed, Flickr and YouTube.
Alabama Power was recently ranked third among utilities using social, in an open-ended questionnaire of 51 peer utilities in North America.
Other utilities doing well and proving the ROI of their efforts:
- Avista (WA) may have been the first to use social as the centerpiece of a year-long rate case
- Salt River Project (AZ) has really attacked and leveraged YouTube
- Dominion in Virginia has been outstanding in incorporating customer service
- AEP has done a wonderful job in balancing top-down strategic needs with bottom-up localization in the many states they serve
- Public Service New Hampshire demonstrates how you can do great things in engaging customers; and
- Idaho Power rolled out a social campaign (and blog) to educate its customers about some anomalies in wind subsidies that were negatively impacting the business
Recently Charlene Li and Brian Solis published The Evolution of Social Business: Six Stages of Social Business Transformation (SlideShare version). Also see The Next Web article on the six stages that every company has to go through, based on Altimeter’s research.
The study appears to be oriented towards conventional B2C companies, with its six stages of Planning, Presence, Engagement, Formalized, Strategic and Converged (primarily for marketing purposes). It’s interesting how late in the game Altimeter places “strategic” (phase five).
Based on your own Alabama Power communication strategist experience, both in terms of scaling and managing expectations, do you agree with Li and Solis’ six stages, both what they are and in that order? If yes, at what stage would you put Alabama Power at right now?
I love their work, and think they are right on when it comes to the 60,000-foot level. But in reality, different divisions within a company will be all over the map when it comes to social media attitudes. Some execs get it before others do.
And in our case, as much work as I did to demonstrate use cases and solutions, it was our Twitter deployment in April 2011 that opened eyes. Those skeptics and on the fence saw what we were up to, and said, “Oh! You want to do that? Yes, do more of that.”
The presentation I’ve given on that 2011 case study focuses on how strategic we were. We had more than 400,000 customers without power, and it took a little over a week to restore service. We didn’t just tweet from the hip—every tweet was tied into the overall communications strategy for that day.
Managing expectations, proof of performance—everything we were using to guide the phases of response and our communications around it—all of that was reflected in our tweets.
Alabama Power had to be Strategic before we had full buy-in…and I would venture that only now are we blossoming in Engagement.
What social media “conventional wisdom” makes you organizationally or personally crazy, especially when you relate it to a regulated utilities company with a customer base of 1.4 million homes, businesses and industries?
The conventional wisdom that drives me nuts revolves around those who want to cram something toward us because it happened to work for someone else’s business model. Or those who say there is no ROI, that we should measure in Warm Fuzzies. Then there are the people who have never worked in a Fortune 500 environment, and have no idea what has to happen to scale something like this.
Earlier in 2011, we had a smaller storm. While tweeting overall updates to the media, I got a blog post from a local consultant that really set me off. I sent a tweet reminding people that we aren’t monitored 24/7. and that we don’t have a way to connect Twitter handles to customer accounts. She blasted Alabama Power, for being so naïve, believing our customers have the right to demand service via social.
I suppose when you are a solo practitioner with three small business clients, it’s easy to get that total buy-in from day one. 😉
I do struggle at times with those spouting the Social Media Party Line, with no real experience in scaling up, nor with handling disaster.
Finally, are all of Alabama Power’s social PR and business efforts insourced or do you make use of any short- or long-term contracted consultants or agencies?
Most of what we do is insourced. We did bring in an external agency to help us with the Facebook launch, because we did not have the expertise or the best practices for posts and content. We were still trying to get buy-in from internal groups to help us feed the beast that is Facebook, and we had to launch it first to show what it would look like.
We’ve seen proposals from firms that want to do our content marketing, but I don’t know how well they know our business, nor do they have as keen a pulse on our strategic drivers. We aren’t in this to build audience for the sake of building audience—and, as a regulated monopoly, we run the risk of over-exposure. (Why is my power company spamming me with 10 messages a day? Why is my power company paying an outside company to spam me with 10 messages a day?)
We are who we are, and no amount of social DNA will change that. But what we can do is use channels in a strategic manner, allowing Alabama Power to be who we are in more engaging and conversational ways.
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Ike Pigott is in his fifth year working for Alabama Power, an electric utility that serves more than 1.4-million customers. Currently he is its communication strategist and a media spokesperson. He helped shape the Social Media Guidelines for Alabama Power’s parent, Southern Company, and serves on the system-wide social media advisory council. Current goals include extending the use of social tools, both internally and externally, and helping Alabama Power’s customer service area assimilate social media into how they can serve customers.
With a history of 16 years in television news, Emmy award-winner Pigott left media to feed his passion for crisis communication. While building his consultancy, he started working with the American Red Cross—first as a local communicator in Alabama, and finally as its director of communications and government relations for a five-state region. During his time at the Red Cross he developed the first disaster-response blogs for the agency, as well as the non-profit’s Twitter account (in 2007).
He has been a featured speaker at numerous communication conferences in the United States. In May 2012 he chaired a social media conference in London, England. Ike Pigott invites you to check out his personal accounts: Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, blog, YouTube and Facebook.