Community Liaison: The Art and Science of Advocacy

Spend a stormy night in a local Office of Emergency Management (OEM) as a Community Liaison Rep and you are likely to experience one of the most frustrating and least appreciated jobs in the Incident Command System structure.

Many times, the utility Liaison Rep finds herself between a rock and a hard place – between public officials demanding action or information and operations personnel unable to provide enough of either to satisfy the demand. Then there’s the mood swings Community Liaison personnel have to contend with, from the frenetic activity when the storm is at its most energetic, to crushing boredom from long hours at the OEM, waiting for something/anything to happen.

Perhaps the secret to keeping your head as a Liaison Rep when all around you would like to remove it from your neck is to see yourself as a two-way advocate, sort of like a real estate agent, trying to get the best deal for both parties in a transaction.

Local officials need information (“Where are your crews working? When will critical customers be restored?) and action (de-energizing lines so Public Works can clear the downed trees, opening up major roadways). On the other hand, Ops personnel need input about wires down locations, as well as local officials’ priorities for community safety, mobility and restoration.

So as Liaison, you become the broker, managing both information and demands so Ops can do its job with minimum hassle from the outside, while making sure the community gets the attention and outage information it deserves.

The ingredients for a successful Liaison experience? Preparation, Repetition and Mindset.

Preparation

It might sound overly simple, but you need some basic tools: Access to land lines, cell phone, a laptop, and WIFI. Will you be in a location where cell phone reception is limited? If there is no WIFI, will there be other access to the internet? You have to have access to your company’s website intranet and outage map to do your job. A glossary of restoration terms can help you de-jargonize your messages.

A flash drive with your restoration job’s checklists and up to date contact information will help, especially if your primary computer crashes. And you’ll need documentation for emergency travel through police checkpoints.

Most of all, knowing who you will be working with ahead of time – whether external or internal – can make your job much easier. Smart companies make a special effort to maintain open lines of communication with community officials year-round to foster an ongoing spirit of cooperation. Even if liaison duty is your secondary “storm job,” quickly familiarizing yourself with all your potential stakeholders lets them know you are there to help.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

-George Bernard Shaw, Playwright, Essayist, Nobel Laureate

Repetition

Probably the best reason for frequent networking with stakeholders is that things change. People inside and outside the company move on and take new jobs. The mayor you worked with so successfully last year may have been voted out of office; the police chief may have retired; your favorite contact in Ops may be on vacation. So all your current stakeholders need to be instructed and reminded – repeatedly – of how storm restoration works and how you can help each other.

Mindset

As we said before, during a storm, Community Liaison work can be a voyage from Boredom to Stress and back again. Trying to be an advocate for both your community and your company can put you in a peculiar situation. So you need a “purposeful mindset” to get you through the storm. We borrowed a few ideas from Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:”

  • “Be Proactive:” Seek out opportunities to help. Anticipate potential problems and pre-empt them. One utility we know took the initiative to contact school facilities managers during a Sunday storm to alert them to possible extended outages through the next day, heading off awkward last-minute school closing decisions.
  • “Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood:” Listening to and understanding the needs of your community stakeholders is a powerful move. Simply providing a channel for them to be heard goes a long way toward easing potentially tense circumstances. So does managing expectations so people can plan accordingly.

“Think Win-Win:” When you put your community first, you’ll reap dividends of support and even admiration.

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