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A Lightbulb Moment for Duke Energy

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take is a great mantra in sports. But when it comes to marketing, taking a shot in the dark can bench you for the rest of the season.

Duke Energy is the latest player to throw an airball – boasting such missteps as miscommunication, misinformation, misdirection and miscalculations in the days after Hurricane Irma. As countless Duke electricians and customer service professionals worked tirelessly to restore power to Central Florida, Duke corporate exceeded at misleading customers with false information, unreliable deadlines and brutally expensive utility bills in one of the biggest public relations gaffes in recent memory. And we all got to watch as Duke’s every mistake was publicly played out across all internet and television outlets. For those of us who had internet and television, that is.

What happened?

Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida as a major Category 3 storm. As expected, power outages were widespread. Duke Energy (the area’s largest electricity provider) released a statement assuring Central Florida customers their lights would come on within 7 days.  A week passed, and nearly 60,000 households were still without power.

Then 10 days after Irma, Duke self-reported zero outages to the state when, in fact, thousands of customers were still in the dark. People were heated. Like more-than-a-week-without-air-conditioning-in-summer heated.

We are incredibly grateful for the men and women at Duke Energy who left their homes and families shortly after a natural disaster to restore our power. (Really, thank you!) And sure, it’s easy to make mistakes in a time of crisis. But the crisis communication plan (Duke Energy undoubtedly had slated) did not follow through as well as its hardworking employees, which turned a natural disaster into a public relations disaster.

Once the flood waters recede, what can marketers take away from this whole debacle?

We live in a time when mass communication is essentially free and effortless. A few modest thumb movements can enlighten the world, and as consumers, we can read nearly all of the world’s collective information on a six-inch screen. It’s almost like Duke Energy forgot these inconvenient truths about basic communication in 2017. Desperate for information, customers incessantly called Duke’s service hotlines, only to be directed to automated responses and erroneous information. So customers fought back the only way they could – with vicious online reviews – which quickly spread to all major news outlets. State Rep. Bob Cortes publicly shamed Duke Energy, as they failed to properly inform customers about the amount of work needed and when it would be completed. Living in an era of instant updates, it is only logical to think that this whole logistical nightmare could have been fixed with simple updates.

But that’s not what Duke Energy did. Instead, they attempted to cloak the severity of the situation in silence. Not only did Duke Energy continually miss deadlines they themselves created, but they misspoke to inquiring customers by telling them their power had been restored when it had not been. Feeling like the damage was not nearly done, in a surprise move, Duke fudged their customer usage algorithm resulting in quadrupled power bills. Oops!

The same PR nightmare recovery tactics apply whether you’re a multi-billion dollar corporation or a small business. So what have we learned from this major boo-boo?

Act fast.

For starters, immediately have a higher up in a nice suit deliver a heartfelt public address. It took days for a Duke Energy Exec to issue an apology. News goes viral in a split second, items trend, hashtags happen – the whole nine yards. It’s best to quickly address the situation than to go dark.


Mistakes happen. The best course of action is to not run and hide. Plus it’s kind of hard to hide when you’re a powerful conglomerate earning over $20 billion in revenue annually with an expansive internet presence. Facing the PR nightmare head-on was a must for Duke Energy. Admit mistakes were made, profess your undying commitment to making things better and say you’ve learned your lesson.

Help the public understand.

Duke Energy misinterpreted the situation – greatly. Why were thousands of people literally left in the dark? Why was so much misinformation dished out? Duke Energy made bold statements before they had all the information. Thousands of utility poles were downed, more than 1,000 transformers were destroyed and thousands of miles of power lines were damaged. These repairs are understandably time consuming. Keeping customers in the loop about the game plan and time table would have been nice. Customers favor facts over false promises.

Keep the public up-to-speed.

Okay, so you’ve apologized, admitted your mistakes and tried to get the public on your side. Now it’s time to take action – and let your customers know exactly what that action is.

People saw Duke’s service vehicles on their streets and believed their power would be restored shortly. That was not the case. Some trucks were repairing, some trucks were only surveying and other trucks were just plain lost. Think through if your operations could be misinterpreted as false hope. If so, alert customers exactly what those trucks are doing in their neighborhoods.

Redirect attention.

Change the focus to something positive. Customers don’t want to stay angry. Offer to extend payment deadlines for affected areas, produce a video series of the men and women working around the clock to restore power, or donate to a relief fund. Take the focus off of the bad PR and control your message.

Do digital damage control.

Just because the problem is resolved, doesn’t mean your company’s online reputation is out of the woods. Take a look at some of Duke Energy’s recent online reviews. Duke Energy was flooded with scathing one-star reviews, and the virtual hate-mail will continue to trickle in long after the publicity storm has passed. These reviews will pop up when people search your brand on Google, Yelp and other sites we visit to make informed purchasing decisions.

As a savvy business owner, you don’t want these negative reviews to haunt your brand for years to come. You cannot remove negative online reviews in most cases. However, your public response (the good) will pop up with the complaint (the bad). At least this way new customers see the good with the bad. And as business professionals, you should want to take the time to address your customers one-on-one. People want to know they’ve been heard, especially when they’ve been calling for a week and only getting a busy signal.

The grapevine of information is decidedly shorter than it used to be. Companies, no matter the size, need to be mindful of maintaining their reputation. We have come to expect instant updates – even in a hurricane – making PR nightmares more likely than ever. Bouncing back quickly after one is challenging, but it is possible.


Laughing Samurai

Laughing Samurai

We're a digital marketing agency. We do silly things like branding, web design and video.

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