When outages happen, utility liaison personnel really have a lot of walking to do – as in walking the tightrope, walking a fine line, walking on eggshells, or, as it may sometimes seem, walking the plank!
Idioms aside, a liaison’s path during an outage situation is rife with potential pitfalls because he/she must balance the needs of multiple stakeholders. It’s a balancing act that can manifest itself in many ways, including but not limited to:
- Prioritizing internal versus external stakeholder needs
- Managing information flow between the utility and the local communities
- Communicating too much versus too little information to the public
- Focusing on providing customers reassurance versus managing expectations
Just thinking about this constant tug-of-war gives me a headache, and that’s why I believe that utility liaisons are probably some of the most underappreciated employees in the entire utility industry. That said, there are ways to ease the pain.
What Makes a Good Utility Liaison?
The liaison serves as the single point of contact for community officials and other external stakeholders, managing the content of communications, monitoring and managing inter-organizational issues, and participating in planning meetings. But before any of this can happen, a connection between the utility and these external stakeholders must be established via the liaison’s proactive and ongoing communication and relationship building efforts. Obviously, this needs to happen way before any emergency situation arises in order to build mutual trust and a clear understanding of duties and objectives when outages occur. Liaisons that meet regularly with community and regulatory officials and leaders are most likely to have the best relationships.
Having solid relationships in place makes things easier for liaisons when disaster strikes, especially as it relates to working with community officials to share information related to the restoration. For example, the utility liaison will generally gather information from the community about damaged infrastructure and restoration priorities, which he/she then passes back to the utility as an input into things such as estimated restoration times (ETRs). For this reason, knowing who to work with ahead of time makes the liaison’s job much easier. In addition, liaisons and community officials must work together to ensure consistent messaging is communicated to the general public, as transparently as possible, to maintain the public’s trust.
Additionally, liaisons must ensure that internal and external stakeholders work closely together from a planning perspective. Whenever electric utilities develop or update their emergency response plans, liaisons must make sure community and regulatory officials have a seat at the table, and vice versa. This minimizes misunderstandings around policies, increases the propensity of all sides to speak the same “language,” and ensures that all emergency plans are complimentary, synergistic, completely executable, and incorporate the needs and priorities of all stakeholders (for example the community needs the utility to restore power to certain facilities like hospitals and fire stations first, and the utility needs the community to clear blocked roads to enable the restoration). It also helps build trust and confidence in the utility, and sets realistic expectations, because this joint planning process improves external stakeholders’ understanding of the utility’s constraints during restoration efforts (limited field resources, damage assessment timelines, ETR variability, etc.).
Walking the Walk
The bottom line is this – liaisons that make a special effort to maintain open lines of communication with community officials and other external stakeholders year-round do a better job of fostering an ongoing spirit of cooperation and mutual trust. It also certainly doesn’t hurt to continuously instruct and remind external stakeholders how storm restoration works and how everyone can help each other in the most effective and efficient manner possible.
One final thought – community officials in particular are primarily concerned with the safety of, and the communication to, their residents during outage situations, and this knowledge can be used by progressive utilities to enhance community trust and cooperation. For example, after a major event, PSE&G Long Island routinely dispatches customer liaisons and opens customer outreach centers in the hardest hit areas to answer questions, and provide reassurance, personal assistance, and even supplies like ice and water to impacted customers.
So any good utility liaison must be proactive and outgoing, continuously work on building trust and mutual cooperation with community and regulatory officials, and focus on the needs of each community’s residents. Do this, and you’ll be walking on air!