By CHRIS LEYDEN
WASHINGTON—Maryland power providers, under fire for blackouts after severe storms, are trying to burnish their image, and provide better service, by using social media to connect with customers.
Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are now common ways to reach out to many companies with questions, comments and complaints, and utility providers are not excluded.
"We, within the last two to three years, have really moved forward aggressively to use social media and the way of communicating with our customer-members," said Tom Dennison, government and public affairs manager for Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.
"Everything we do now is a multimedia approach," echoed Baltimore Gas and Electric spokeswoman Rachael Lighty. "The utility business is kind of confusing; it can be very confusing for the customers."
While the response to the outreach has largely been positive for these utilities, in the case of Pepco, some critics say social media is just a cheap way to improve public relations while disguising underlying service problems.
Charles E. Olson, a business professor at the University of Maryland, has testified for and against utility companies in the past. He said he believes Pepco let its infrastructure go for too long and is now attempting to clean up its image through social media.
"Social media is a low-cost way to try to do the image thing, and is probably somewhat in lieu of providing the service they should be providing," said Olson. "The alternative is to have to put a lot of money into modernizing their systems to bring them up to 21st century level. It would appear, at least in the case of Pepco, that they are reluctant to do that."
But Pepco shines in providing mobile access for customers. According to Pepco, its mobile phone app released in November 2010 already has more than 80,000 downloads.
"The response has been incredibly positive," said Pepco's Manager of Interactive Communications Brett Holland. "People are using it to report their outages, to get status updates; you know they have really found it helpful."
Tricia Marchand, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom from Silver Spring, said she prefers using Pepco's app rather than calling in an outage.
"It's so much easier to be able to just submit an outage alert through their app on the phone rather than having to call in, punch in your address, phone number and all that," said Marchand. "And it's nice to be able to just pull it up, check out the outage map and see what's happening in the area."
All three power providers contacted by CNS see the movement to mobile devices and are shifting gears toward giving consumers a better mobile experience.
"People rely on mobile devices, not even just during outages. I think we are seeing this trend towards mobile devices whether it be a tablet or a smartphone so we want to make sure we are prepared for that," said Holland.
While BGE does not yet have a smartphone app, Lighty says it monitors and responds to anyone who reaches out on a social media website.
Jess Gartner, a 25-year-old marketing coordinator who lives in Baltimore, told CNS she used Twitter to tell BGE about low-hanging wires, and in about 20 minutes the company had someone at her door assessing the issue. Gartner had previously reached out to BGE through its website and received no response.
"I was super-pleased with their customer service," said Gartner. "My only concern is I don't understand why there is so much attention on the social media and not through the formal request avenues."
Social media and other Internet-based technology also allow for a quicker exchange of information, which means consumers can see almost instant updates.
"Customer expectations are such that utilities like SMECO are always evolving and always trying to improve in terms of providing real-time, up-to-date information to them," said Dennison.
Social media plaudits are a bright spot for utilities, who have taken heat recently for taking too long to turn the lights back on following severe weather.
Pepco, in particular, has been criticized, after being awarded a 1.7 percent price increase in Maryland less than a month after a straight-line wind storm, or derecho, in late June left many of its customers without power for days, and in some cases, weeks.
And now the company is facing the prospect of a strike by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900, the union that represents its workers. The union voted down Pepco's most recent settlement proposal Wednesday.
Olson said that while Pepco may be improving its image by interacting with customers over social media, "the next time there is a big blackout it's all going to be for naught."
Pepco disagreed, pointing to the millions of dollars it's spent pruning trees, replacing wires and other measures.
"We've been doing a lot of work to enhance the reliability of the system," said Bob Hainey, a company spokesman.
Paula Carmody, People's Counsel for the State of Maryland, reiterated Olson's feelings about Pepco's failure to keep up with the times in the past.
"In expert testimony and in our comments to the Public Service Commission here (we) told the commission straight out that there was a history of underinvestment by Pepco and their distribution system," said Carmody.
Carmody said while she does support the use of social media and apps to assist customers, reliable service will improve a company's image more than its use of social media.
"You want those communications avenues open, you want them diverse, but at the end of the day you want results."