What We’ve Got Here is….Failure to Communicate

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”
~ Captain, Road Prison 36, (Cool Hand Luke)

At the open Q&A session of a recent utility executive conference, one issue always emerged as the single biggest hindrance to improving performance: poor communications. You’d think that after almost a decade of hearing about communications problems, leadership would have done something about it. But somebody always brought it up.

Yet complex communication is so much a part of us that it defines our species. Trained gorillas aside, the ability to speak and write separates us from all the other primates. But give us a job to do that requires the free flow of information to coordinate cooperative effort, and chances are good we’ll mess it up somehow if we’re not careful.

Emergencies produce all kinds of opportunities for communications snafus, because we have to deal with so many different “audiences,” each with its own set of needs and expectations. To be effective, messages must be tailored to each audience, transmitted via each receiver’s preferred medium, effectively received and, finally, understood. And it’s all much easier said than done.

“The problem with communication… is the illusion it has been accomplished.”
~ George Bernard Shaw

Much thought needs to go into our Communications Plans, and the performance of the Communications Team becomes pivotal. As we put our plan together, here are some key values to guide us:

Speed: Timeliness is next to “truthiness.” Let’s not get scooped by our customers, our employees, our employee’s families, or the news media. Remember, with camera phones, blogs and Twitter, anybody could be a “Citizen Reporter.”

Accuracy: Overly optimistic outage information only causes aggravation. Communicating outdated of erroneous info is even worse than failure to communicate at all.  Make sure our internal information systems are always “up to the minute.”

Candor: We don’t want to look like we don’t know what’s going on. There’s no place to hide anyway. Being straight with people can help to control an otherwise uncomfortable situation, and get our message out about the problems we are having and how we are working around the clock to restore service.

Style: It’s natural to put more value on how things look than what we say. So let’s get senior management out with employees at the job sites to thank them for working safely, working hard to take care of our customers. Put top execs in front of the news media, in the storm room or out in the field – after we make sure they’re trained to handle the situation. Let’s talk about safety and our concern for people at every opportunity.

Reach: Plan to cover all our stakeholder audiences well: employees, their families, customers, businesses big and small, investors, regulators, government officials, the news media.  Leave no stone unturned. Uninformed stakeholders are opponents waiting to happen.

Frequency: How many times do we have to tell people who are important to us that we care about them? We need our website updated constantly with useful information, especially human interest stories about our people’s efforts. We can even maintain different sites for different audiences.

Feedback: Communication is a two-way street. We have to monitor what’s being said in the news media, the local blogs, and our customer care lines and respond appropriately. And after the event is over, feedback becomes fodder for performance improvement

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
~ Ernest Hemingway

There’s a lot more to say about effective restoration communications during emergencies. Failure to communicate is the worst possible behavior.  And in future discussions, we’ll cover roles, responsibilities, SOP’s, checklists, audiences, messaging, the whole spectrum in one way or another. In the meantime, we’re going to take the advice of a master communicator:

“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”
~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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