Wednesday, February 10

Managing Crisis: Silence vs. Social

"We are not eliminating any medical benefits," Rob Stillwell, spokesman for NV Energy, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "That's all I can say on the record."

There is a reason NV Energy cannot discuss its decision to place a cap on contributions to employees' retiree medical plans: textbook public relations. Regulated companies are almost always silent in the midst of union contract negotiations.

Unions are not.

Some 200 union workers rallied in the rain yesterday to protest planned reduced health care benefits for NV Energy retirees and cutbacks in the utility company's work force. But the traditional pickets are only one piece of the union's communication program. IBEW Local 1245 has launched a Web site and a Facebook page, aptly titled Shame On NV Energy.

Paid advertisements help drive traffic to the site. Banners were placed on the The New York Times several days ago. It seems the communication is aimed at would-be investors considering the company after it reported a profit, credited to a 6.1 percent increase in Southern Nevada's general rates. Even without the rate hike, NV Energy was already delivering the most expensive energy in the mountain states.

The union also seems especially irritated by the changes in retiree compensation plans because it was hopeful that NV Energy would be investing in a new transmission line and receiving $138 million in stimulus funds, which Senator Harry Reid claims as a feather in his cap. Instead, the union was surprised by a planned cut in retiree health benefits and the closure of offices in Las Vegas, Elko, Yerington and Carson City.

The cuts are likely a consequence of NV Energy's planned move into renewable energy. In its most recent Integrated Resource Plan approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, NV Energy will be spending approximately $2 billion to purchase and invest in new renewable energy by 2015. The emphasis is on solar, wind, and geothermal.

Recent announcements in its moves toward renewable energy all but drown out the union protest. However, that does not mean the complaints are falling on deaf ears. Since Monday, the Facebook account has tripled as consumers, concerned about energy prices, join the retirees. Like many utilities, the answer is never to reduce rates but to reduce consumption, they say.

There is also speculation over the resignation of the company’s chief financial officer and treasurer just days before what would otherwise be good news. Speculation is commonplace, given the timing and lack of any specific reason.

The story raises several interesting questions about social media and the current state of media. One of the most pressing has less to do with message management and more to do with message control, which social media is often credited in rectifying. However, in this case study, it seems social media makes communication a crapshoot.

The success of IBEW communication relies on nothing more than drawing attention to the topic. The success of NV Energy communication seems much more to do with talking more about everything else, as there is no mention of cuts on its Web site or toe test on Twitter.

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