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PSE&G tells Congress of Sandy social media experience

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The state's largest utility was on Capitol Hill today to explain how social media became a critical communications tool in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Jorge Cardenas, PSE&G vice president of asset management and centralized service, told the committee one lesson learned was that the public respects consistent, transparent interaction.

When asked by Payne what set PSE&G apart from other utilities, Cardenas said it was the company's personal approach.

"The key difference is that we had real people speaking with real people," he said. "Our employees live in our service territories. They were experiencing the same things our customers were."

Cardenas said 90 percent of the utility's 2.2 million electric customers lost power during the storm. In the hours and days afterward, the company sent more than 9,000 Twitter messages and saw 90,000 tweets directed at the company.

PSE&G's three Twitter feeds gained 49,000 new followers during the storm. Before Sandy, PSE&G had about 15,000 followers. It currently has 58,000 Twitter followers, having lost some since the storm, and 1,600 Facebook followers, though the company has only been on Facebook since March.

Cardenas said the utility learned that social media usage spikes during a storm, thanks in large part to mobile technology. He said tone matters, and said it's also important to connect with people who have influence in their local communities.

Cardenas said the utility used social media to supplement its press releases and also to respond to individual customer concerns.

"When the volume of inbound tweets became too great to us to reply to each individually, we responded to messages about safety and offered comment when we felt it could benefit a broad audience," he said.

At one point, Cardenas said, the company exceeded the maximum number of tweets allowed each day. PSE&G called Twitter and were granted an expanded cap, but Cardenas that's something the utility will keep in mind for future storms.

The company typically has a handful of communications employees run its social media operation during business hours. During Sandy, they used 22 staffers to man social media 15 hours a day.

Jennifer Kramer, who oversees PSE&G's social media strategy, said the company focused its efforts on Twitter during the storm, rather than branching out into other platforms like Facebook, because "We knew we didn't have the resources to monitor and engage on Facebook in addition to Twitter, and couldn't risk people writing, unchecked, about safety issues, or putting out personal private information in a forum we owned."

The House isn't the only agency looking at communications. The Board of Public Utilities began aggressively vetting communications following Hurricane Irene in 2011, when some of the state's utilities were criticized for sending inconsistent or contradictory messaging, and for not doing enough to reach out to local officials.

Rep. Peter King (R-New York) said his local utility, the Long Island Power Authority, did a poor job of communicating during Sandy.

"It was almost impossible to get information, to get answers," King said.

He urged Cardenas and PSE&G to share their experience with other utilities. That won't be hard in the case of LIPA: PSE&G's parent company, Public Service Enterprise Group, is scheduled to take over operations of LIPA next year

PSE&G tells Congress of Sandy social media experience

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