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Analysis: Utilities tackle communication breakdown

Analysis: Utilities tackle communication breakdown
MONDAY NOVEMBER 26, 2012, 11:04 PM

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed to reach North Jersey residents left in the cold and dark by superstorm Sandy, it printed fliers and sent agents into the streets to distribute them. In Ridgewood, elected officials also printed sheets of paper to give residents, telling them where to find ice and other necessities they needed to get through an extended power outage.

New Jersey’s utility companies, however, communicated with out-of-power customers through email and online social media. They also held regular briefings with reporters where company officials stressed how tough their jobs were and how many employees they had out in the field working long hours to make repairs.

That message didn’t reach many customers who had no Internet, no radio and no way of charging their smart phones because their homes were flooded or their power was still out. And, in the estimation of several crisis management experts, it probably didn’t resonate much with customers who had power but wanted to hear less about how hard the task was and more about how close, realistically, it was to being completed.

The challenge of restoring power was hard enough after Sandy, New Jersey’s most damaging storm ever, and, amid the frustration, it’s hard to imagine how North Jersey’s power companies — the Public Service Electric and Gas Co., Jersey Central Power & Light and Orange & Rockland Utilities — weren’t destined for a public-relations drubbing.

But, in Sandy’s wake, a significant question has arisen about whether, apart from their performance in restoring power, the three companies, to one degree or another, made life harder on themselves and more frustrating for their customers by failing to communicate as effectively as they could have.

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