Friday, September 11, 2009

Toot Toot

Excuse me while I toot our horn a bit...

Seminar teaches businesses to use Twitter to keep customers informed
By James Dowd

Even on a good day, serving nearly 430,000 customers can prove challenging.

For the folks at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, June 12 was definitely not a good day.

That's when a storm slammed the area, knocking out 71 circuits and shutting off power for 140,000 MLGW customers.

The company's response provided the foundation for "How to Twitter through a Crisis," a seminar Wednesday hosted by the Memphis chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

The program offered an unvarnished look at how the utility company harnessed the power of social media -- particularly Twitter -- to keep customers informed.

"The utility industry has been a little behind with regard to social media, but that's changing," said Glen Thomas, a supervisor at MLGW. "It's not always a walk in the park because this is the age of the Internet tough guy, but it's proving worthwhile for us."

Before June 12, one person managed the company's Twitter account, which had been operating on an occasional basis since last year. There were fewer than four dozen tweets and about 200 followers.

Today, MLGW boasts a "Twitter team" and counts more than 1,800 followers. Daily tweets about outages, energy efficient measures and green practices are routine.

The company also answers customer questions and offers safety tips during times of extreme weather.

"At first it wasn't really coordinated, we just decided to send out a message on Twitter because we had an account," said Richard Thompson, MLGW communications specialist. "Then it exploded. A lot of people realized they could come on Twitter and talk to us directly."

The ability to communicate in real time with thousands of customers makes Twitter an ideal way to disseminate information, said Chris Stanley, lead media relations director for MLGW and local PRSA president. And that makes it a powerful tool that other companies can -- and should -- utilize.

"Your business is being talked about on Twitter, whether you're joining in on the conversation or not," Stanley said. "You need to join the conversation and protect your brand."

For newbies, Stanley recommended starting slowly and getting a feel for social media first. Learn the language and rules of Twitter or any other site, he stressed, before posting anything.

"Think about everything you say because once it's out there, it's public forever," Stanley said.

The social media experiment has been overwhelmingly positive for MLGW, but that's not to say there haven't been rough spots, Thomas said. Customers have posted negative comments about the company, but instead of becoming offended, staffers are encouraged to use the critiques as opportunities to improve service.

And in times of emergency, maintaining communication is vital.

"We've had thousands of conversations with customers that wouldn't have been possible without social media," Thomas said. "Even if people are complaining, we're listening and now it's easier and faster to let them know we're addressing their problems."

In addition to Twitter, MLGW has a Facebook page, posts videos on YouTube and maintains a blog.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...