Bad PR

A week ago Friday, a severe storm blew from the Midwest through to the Mid-Atlantic, knocking out power for millions of people. In the Washington, DC area, Pepco lost 56 percent of its customers. Full restoration took the company 8 days.

Whether or not that length of time was justified, it certainly hasn’t sat well with DC and Maryland customers. Already under pressure for acknowledged poor reliability in the past, Pepco has been subject to some very intense criticism for the last week. To give you an idea of what really bad public relations looks like for an electric utility, let’s review some of the things being said about Pepco.

[Disclaimer #1: My power, usually provided by Pepco, was out for 4½ days.]

[Disclaimer #2: I recently turned down a job offer from Pepco, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of their service.]

Of course, someone started the obligatory Pepco Sucks website.

There’s also a No Power Pepco Facebook group.

A small Independence Day parade turned into an anti-Pepco protest march. Apparently, the company’s automated call-back system for updating customers on the status of restoration work was programed to say “Power has been restored to your area.” People took this to mean, “We think you have your power back,” which it wasn’t. In actuality the message was supposed to mean, “We’ve gotten closer in working our way towards your home.”

Another television news story concerned a teen injured by a downed power line and Pepco’s poor response when alerted to the hazard by the boy’s father.

[Disclaimer #3: These are friends-of-the-family.]

An article in The Washington Post’s Outlook section detailed “5 Myths About Pepco,” three of which were basically, “Don’t believe their excuses.”

Some DC musicians recorded a song titled “F*ck You, Pepco” [WARNING: as if it wasn’t obvious from the title, the video includes some strong language].

With all this bad PR, there’s certain to be consequences for Pepco’s recent rate request. An online petition asks Maryland’s governor to “Fire the utility regulators, reject rate hikes, fix PEPCO!” Another article in The Washington Post this week (Local section) was titled, “Pepco Wants to Stick Customers With Cost of Arguing its Upkeep Was Fine.”

This story is far from over and it’s not looking good for Pepco.

Risk Communication and the Fear of Nuclear Power Plants

While the world continues to watch the unfolding tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a number of sources seem to be going out of their way to explain to people that nuclear power is not nearly as deadly as other common sources of electric power. If I may paraphrase, that despite some isolated incidents, the risk from nuclear power plants is relatively low.

In an article titled “Why does ‘nuclear’ scare us so much?” on, Dr. Drew Pinsky writes:

People generally think about risk from an emotional perspective, rather than from a rational one, says Richard John, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.

Here’s how you actually calculate risk: Multiply the probability of a consequence by the severity of the consequence. But if you ask people how risky something is, it probably won’t match up with that calculation. They’ll go with their intuition, or gut feeling.

Geekosystem, referring to the above diagram from Next Big Future, explains

But this only serves to illustrate the tendency of people — and the media that feeds that tendency — to focus on the high-impact and low-probability rather than the pervasive and pernicious.

As if the public is wrong to be concerned, and needs to be educated by the statistics.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is common among engineers and experts.

The problem is that it discounts people’s moral values and emotions in valuing risk.

Experts, and apparently certain members of the press, would do well to study the work of Dr. Peter Sandman, who explains that an oft-ignored component of risk is outrage.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

Hazard is that component of risk most commonly focused on by the experts. Hazard equals the magnitude of the potential problem times the probability of it happening. Outrage, on the other hand, is what the public focuses on. Outrage is a function of 12 components:

  • Voluntary vs. coerced
  • Natural vs. industrial
  • Familiar vs. not familiar
  • Not memorable vs. memorable
  • Not dreaded vs. dreaded
  • Chronic vs. catastrophic
  • Knowable vs. unknowable
  • Individually controlled vs. controlled by others
  • Fair vs. unfair
  • Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant
  • Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources
  • Responsive process vs. unresponsive process

The public isn’t wrong in considering these factors important, and rather than trying to correct people, engineers and experts should embrace them as part of strategic communication plans.