light bulbs and ice

Article Turn Down the Heat in an Ice Storm?
When Hell Freezes Over

How Consumers Energy employed a multi-channel content strategy to rally customers to avoid an energy shortage.

It was cold; really cold. I know because I was there. The end of January can be a dicey time of year in a regular Midwestern winter, but we were facing down record low temps when we got a most unlikely text message.

derek text notification message

The Sydney Morning Herald had the headline and the rest of the story:

Hell officially freezes over as Arctic blast spreads across US, killing several

“The town of Hell in Michigan officially froze over on Thursday (local time) as the US battled through a blistering blast of Arctic air that has broken records and caused at least 12 deaths,” the Australian newspaper reported. “The community 95 kilometers west of Detroit dropped to minus 26 degrees Celsius overnight and the nearby University of Michigan took the rare step of cancelling classes.”

Closer to home, the Detroit Freepress reported, “Consumers Energy sent an urgent text alert on cell phones shortly after 10:30 p.m. urging utility customers to lower thermostats and reduce energy usage or risk a dangerous gas shortage in the wake of record-breaking cold.”

You read that right, we were being asked to turn DOWN our heat. And contrary to conventional wisdom, we did. But it wasn’t magic, it was done through a concerted and coordinated effort across multiple agencies and channels.

In a spin of extremely bad timing, the Ray Township Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County had a fire just as temps were plummeting. The fire itself was quickly contained, but the stress it put on the system left the utility scrambling to supply enough gas from reserve storage areas in Wayne and St. Clair counties.

So the call went out to customers to do our part and ensure we maintained service through the cold. As Garrick Rochow, senior vice president of operations for Consumers Energy told the Freepress:

One thing I’ve found about Michiganders is that we’ve got a great state and everybody pitches in. We know that our customers are pitching in to make the right choice, and it’s making a difference in our operations.

In addition to the SMS messages, social feeds were coordinated to amplify the message consistently and lead customers to the website for additional information and tips for reducing consumption. Broken down into three bullet points, the message was clear:

  • Set thermostats to a lower temperature, such as setting heat to 65 degrees while you're home and 62 degrees when you're away for more than five hours
  • Industrial and business customers are asked to temporarily reduce processes
  • Seal and shut windows and doors, check for leaks by feeling around for cool air and ensure all windows and doors are closed tightly

Nearly all communications from the organization were focused on this message. Within a day, the company had told the Lansing State Journal that usage had been reduced by 10%, averting any outages.

"At this point, we don't anticipate shutoffs," said Charles Crews, vice president of gas operations.

It was a flash study in multi-channel, coordinated communications, and it worked. This kind of communication doesn’t just happen, it requires the right plan, the right channels and the focus required to ensure your message gets out. The same principles can be applied to all of your organization’s communications. I’ll share some ideas on how in my upcoming webinar, Inspiring Content Strategy for Energy Utilities.

 

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