Electric Social

Atlantic City Electric has a smartphone app that allows users to report outages and more.

After mass electricity outages from Hurricane Sandy last year, nearly 14 percent of them were reported to Atlantic City Electric through a mobile phone app, the company said.

During that period, the Mays Landing-based utility said it reached more than 40,000 people with its Facebook posts and engaged in discussions with more than 6,500 users on the social media site.

Web traffic, meanwhile, shot up 800 percent.

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With another hurricane season approaching, relatively new communications tools are taking on a larger role in how electrical outages are reported, and how electric companies deliver key information, such as estimated restoration times and safety advice.

“I think a few years ago, it was probably a bonus for customers if they used social media. Now it’s no longer a bonus. It’s essential. It is proven customers will turn to social media during a storm. We’ve seen a staggering number of customers using our social media channels, so we need to be involved,” said Brett Holland, manager of interactive communications at Pepco Holdings Inc., the parent company of Atlantic City Electric.

State energy regulators have been stressing that electric companies effectively use the likes of Facebook and Twitter to convey information along with traditional channels, such as telephones.

A 2012 report commissioned by the state Board of Public Utilities highlighted some of the troubles in New Jersey after Hurricane Irene in August 2011, when electricity was disrupted to 1.9 million of the state’s 3.9 million customers.

One of the widespread recommendations in the Emergency Preparedness Partnerships’ report was to “use social media and recognize the public’s need to access/ receive reports on outages and receive updates via mobile devices.”

John Simmons is technical executive for the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit research and development group.

The institute recently surveyed 160 of the nation’s largest utilities to gauge social media usage.

The survey suggested about one-quarter of them used Twitter, Simmons said.

Yet with the uses come potential pitfalls.

“It’s very important that utilities realize that all of their communications carry a consistent message — that the TV reporter talking to a communications person is getting the same numbers being put out on Twitter and Facebook.

Widespread adoption of social media by utilities in the U.S. was relatively slow during the past several years but accelerated following Hurricane Sandy, Simmons said.

Atlantic City Electric’s largest social-media tool is Facebook. It also deals heavily with Twitter, YouTube and WordPress, Holland said.

“Once we get into the storm, social media allows us the unique opportunity to provide accurate real-time updates on outages and safety tips and video updates as well,” he said. “We like to show the video of how we restore power and approach the system.”

Holland said Pepco puts a crisis social media team in place before, during and after a storm, posting updates and responding to individual customers’ posts.

Using social media effectively — and accurately — can be difficult, driven by the sheer volume of information that can be disseminated very quickly.

“One of the biggest challenges is making sure you’re giving a consistent message, not just on social media but those traditional channels,” Holland said.

Stefanie Brand, the director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, which represents utility customers, said utilities need to use many channels of communication when it comes to storms.

“We’re in favor of doing anything anyone can think of to inform people about when their electricity is likely to be back up,” she said. “From personal experience, there’s almost nothing more frustrating than if you left home because there’s a power outage and you have to go back to figure out if the lights are on yet.”

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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