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Originally published Friday, January 20, 2012 at 8:36 PM

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When lights go out, PSE has Facebook crew

You'd think PSE would know that when the power goes out, there is not an app for that. Still, a steady stream of powerless people somehow ended up posting messages on PSE's Facebook page the past few days.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The competition was tough, but the award for oddball storm response of the week goes to Puget Sound Energy.

Not the brave crews in trucks and helicopters, working all hours to restore power in dangerous conditions. We're all grateful for them.

I'm talking about the clever administrators who suggested on Twitter that customers report power outages via email and Facebook.

That's like telling someone to bring their stalled car into the shop or to call a doctor if they pass out.

Every few years, this area gets clobbered by storms. So you'd think PSE would know that when the power goes out, there is not an app for that.

When the power goes out, computers stop working. If you're lucky, you have a working phone, and maybe you have a smartphone that will last a day or so before it needs a charge.

Still, a steady stream of powerless people somehow ended up posting messages on PSE's Facebook page the past few days.

Most of those who scrounged up a few watts and found their way online asked when their power would come back. Some asked about other outages — such as glitches in the PSE website providing service updates.

PSE never answered the timing question, and it used boilerplate, advising people with outages to call, visit PSE.com or send an email.

I've got to hand it to PSE's social-network crew, though. They were very responsive, replying to most posts within minutes.

A sample exchange:

Holly: "Your real time update isn't working anymore. When will it be up again? And in the meantime can you give an update of 98597? Thank you."

PSE: "Hi Holly, We're so sorry it's not working right now! We are working hard to get it back up and running and we'll post a status update when that happens, as that is the best way for you to get information about the outages and restoration in your area. Thank you for your patience!"

Flying fingers on PSE keyboards led to a few oddities.

PSE gave a thumbs up to a Facebook post by David of Spanaway, who asked when his power might be restored. David said he doesn't have a fireplace and was "very cold last night."

The initial response: "Puget Sound Energy likes this."

If I were David, or any of the hundreds of thousands who have been shivering in the dark, I'd be hoping PSE isn't diverting an ounce of effort from power restoration to website restoration.

They're not, according to Grant Ringel, director of communications. He said the social networking is handled by people who generally work on things like employee communications and are also avid Facebook users.

PSE has used social media to interact with customers for several years, but this was the first major storm in which it received heavy emphasis.

"Certainly it's an additional avenue, not the primary avenue, but what we've found over the last year or two, is some people really prefer a social-media route," Ringel said. "We're actually trying to open that door a little further."

Ringel said the company suggested people use email or Facebook to report outages after its call center was overwhelmed, to avoid long waits on the phone. The idea was to let people know they could email outage reports to customercare@pse.com and reach the call center directly.

Some people disclosed their home addresses on Facebook, which wasn't the intention, Ringel said.

"The original instructions probably were a little less clear than we intended," he said, adding that "we tried to advise them to use the email channel — that was really the main focus of the Facebook effort, other than just to answer general questions."

OK, that and a conversation with PSE customer David Line made me wonder if I'm being too harsh.

Line used Facebook to alert PSE about a downed power line near his home in Roy, Pierce County.

"I think it's great," he told me. "I posted a message on their Facebook page. Inside of a minute I had a response."

Line was without power Friday, but his phone service — with FairPoint Communications — held up fine.

How did Line reach Facebook with no electricity? With a cellphone.

"I've got to go out to my car to charge it up," he said.

Still, Facebook wasn't the essential conduit.

Line's post explained he first phoned PSE to report the wire and was told to call 911. The 911 operator said he should call the power company.

Then he posted a note on PSE's Facebook page, where the company told him, "Stay as far away from it as you can and assume it's live."

Not everyone's as resourceful or persistent as Line, though, and less than half the population has a smartphone.

Maybe it's a question of balance. Opening new channels of communication is good, as long as it doesn't lead to cutbacks of core services that are more broadly accessible.

Handling customers by phone may seem quaint. It's also more time-consuming and expensive than broadcasting responses on a social network. Yet phones reach practically everyone and are designed to work when the power goes out.

There are other issues with directing customers to social networks. For one thing, they're still not utilities. Only about half the U.S. population uses Facebook, and far fewer people use Twitter, which is known to get overwhelmed by traffic.

Then there's the question of whether PSE customers seeking prompt responses should have to engage with social networks that profile users and target them with advertising.

The online services are fun, powerful and have impressive reach. They also gave PSE customers who could connect during the storm a way to speak directly to the company and share concerns and tips with others.

But, come on.

It will be a while before most people have Web devices that work through extended blackouts. Until then, it's a bit absurd for a power company to suggest people without electricity go online to report the outage.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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