Friday, August 21, 2009


Crisis communications is a long-haul operation. It doesn’t cease once the fire’s out. So it caught my eye when the big issue Toronto Hydro had to grapple with last winter – that of “stray voltage,” electrified cover-plates, a couple of dogs (fatally) and one child (mildly) shocked – returned to the news this week. What prompted the story was the routine release of financial information by the company, but it underscored just how costly - $14.3 million, to be precise – the stray voltage problem was in financial terms, let alone public relations-wise. But the disclosure actually provided the utility with a fresh platform to lay out the extensive amount of work it has done since then, to address one of the fundamental questions of crisis communications: what have you done to make sure it doesn’t happen again? The answer: 600 staff re-assigned full-time to inspecting each and every one of its 13,000 handwells across the city (plus 40,000 lamp-posts) in the immediate aftermath; permanent mobile detection units going forward; ongoing inspections and plans to replace the metal cover-plates with non-conductive fiberglass. Equally impressive were the definitive – and empathetic – comments made by vice-president Blair Peberdy. “Torontonians should be able to walk down the street without worrying about getting shocked by our equipment,” he said. Noting that actual stray voltage incidents involved less than half of one percent of Toronto Hydro’s total equipment (an excellent perspective stat), he added “Even 228 (individual cases) is too high. We’re glad it wasn’t more and it’s a serious concern to us. It was worth it and we would do it again. We had a tragic situation with two pets killed and report of a child being shocked, so it’s not something we hesitated about.” In sum, it was a Touchdown-worthy case of taking an occasion which revived a bad news story and turning it into a chance to document progress, effort and leadership.

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