PECO has a PR problem: Its leaders are lousy in a crisis

    PECO has a problem, and I’m not talking about all the people who were still without power a full week after the last ice storm. After all, if you are a utility company whose job it is to provide electricity to people, and you can’t do it after adding 6,800 additional people to your workforce, that’s not a problem — it’s a failure. The problem I’m referring to is what is turning out to be a burgeoning publicity nightmare for the Pennsylvania utility giant.

    After the Feb. 5 ice storm, Philadelphia and its four suburban counties were declared a federal disaster area by the president of the United States. That’s a big deal. PECO issued statements promising that electricity would be restored to most customers by Friday, Feb. 7, with some pockets not being restored until the following Sunday. That didn’t happen. On Feb. 10, they promised that power would “hopefully” be restored that day, but maybe by the next day. That didn’t happen. According to the company’s website as of 6 p.m. Feb. 11, there were approximately 1,000 customers still without power.

    Consider for a moment the fundamental principle used by successful salesmen to “under promise and over deliver.” Now let’s think about the customer in this scenario: angry, cold people without electricity, some of whom compromised to the point where their health is endangered. One out of seven residents in Chester County is elderly. Clearly, this is not a customer base that you want to mislead, yet PECO did just that, and I think it’s going to cost them.

    Damage control is a big part of public relations, and when you’re dealing with a problem as touchy as this, a company or organization has to give answers. To their credit, PECO has been answering the questions. The problem is that the answers are turning out to be mistruths and they’re also giving way to more questions.

    For example, on Philadelphia channel 10 last week, PECO spokesman Ben Armstrong gave the aforementioned promises about power being restored. He added that the culprit for the delay has a lot to do with the difficulty of the work required, pointing to one example involving 20 fallen trees and requiring 26 crews. He went on to say that 6,800 additional PECO employees and contractors from as far away as Canada have been brought in to help. The 6,800 additional workers may sound like a lot, but if 1,000 people were still without power after seven days, then clearly it wasn’t enough.

    Here are my questions for PECO:

    Why didn’t you recruit more contractors?
    Should these people have been brought in sooner?
    Are there any preventive measures, like trimming tree branches that could have helped after receiving forecasts of an ice storm?
    If it takes 26 crews to fix one area, is this a waste of manpower?
    Are your workers trained adequately?

    I empathize with the technicians and contractors who worked around the clock. My frustration — and that of many others — isn’t with the people out in the field doing the work, but rather with the corporate leadership who have clearly dropped the ball. They may have cleverly angled this as “a winter’s version of Sandy,” but at the end of the day it was a failure, plain and simple.

    Catherine Nessa is a public relations professional living in Centerville, Del. She is originally from, and her mother still lives in, Bucks County, Pa.

    Craig L. Adams, president and CEO of PECO Energy, is a member of WHYY’s board of directors.

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