The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

Last Thursday, millions of Southern Californians experienced a major power blackout. The company in the middle of this event, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), had found itself facing the most widespread power outage in its history. Not only had all of its 1.4 million customers lost their power, but they were also demanding to know when it would be returned to them.

In the past, SDGE’s crisis-communications options would have been limited to press releases and press conferences. And although those activities still occurred, SDGE had another option available to it–one that would allow it to speak directly to its customers in real-time. Specifically, the company used its Twitter account to publish 107 messages between 3:52 p.m on Thursday and 9:17 a.m. on Friday.

This mini-case study looks at how SDGE used Twitter to communicate through the crisis, and then it offers some lessons that other companies can learn from the event.

Setting the Foundation

Although San Diego Gas & Electric created its Twitter account (@sdge) on April 24, 2009, it didn’t start posting to it until the following September. During its first twenty-four months of tweeting, the company grew its audience to over 16,000 followers by sharing helpful tips pertaining to energy safety, conservation, and ways for customers to cut their energy bills. Examples of such tips include: changing the filter on your air conditioner, using tankless water heaters, and closing window drapes to keep the sun from heating up your house.

During these first 24 months, the company had established a fairly consistent publishing schedule, averaging 34 tweets per month (median = 31), but that would all change the day the power stopped flowing to all of its 1.4 million customers.

Lights out

SDGE’s first tweet about the event occurred at 3:52 p.m on Thursday:

  • We understand power is out, we are working on the cause and solution. We do not have a restoration time yet.

During the next sixteen hours, the company published 106 more tweets containing information that fell into four different categories: updates, insights, tips, and help.

Fifty percent of the tweets included updates–real-time news such as the number of households affected (1.4 million), neighborhoods affected, and areas which were getting power back.

Insights offered customers a glimpse into the company’s thought process. For example:

    • Think of the system as linked by springs, when one part goes out the rest are affected.
    • SDGE prez said he has been with utility since 1971 and never seen anything like this. There was no warning. Started at 3:30.

31% of the tweets contained tips, which were split into five different sub-categories: safety, help, energy saving, coping, and preparing.

Of these 33 tips SDGE published during the crisis, 36% were devoted to safety. Such tweets included:

    • Safety is key at this time. Prepare to stay home tonight without power.
    • The outage has affected street lights. Please drive safely and treat street signals as four way stops.
    • If you have a personal family emergency plan, please activate it now.
    • If you’re using a portable generator, for safety never plug the generator into any electric outlets. #sdoutage
    • Candles can be fire hazards. Never place them near curtains or other flammable material, or leave them unattended. #sdoutage


27% contained pleas for customers to help SDGE bring-up the grid.

    • Remember to turn off air conditioners to prevent them from unexpectedly coming on when the power is restored. #sdoutage
    • During this power outage turn major appliances off and unplug all small appliances to avoid a surge when power is restored. #sdoutage

12% contained coping strategies:

  • Keep your refrigerator and your freezer doors closed to help prevent food spoilage. #sdoutage

and 9% were related to preparation for when the power would be turned on:

    • To prepare for when power is restored unplug sensitive equipment like microwaves, computers and televisions. #sdoutage
    • To prepare for power restoration: Leave one light on so you’ll know when the power is restored. #sdoutage

When the lights came on

During the course of the crisis, the informational needs of SDGE’s customers changed, so the company adjusted its content accordingly. For example, as power was being restored to their customers…

…it began shifting its messages from updates to tips. The following chart illustrates both the volume and type of tweets the company produced during the crisis.

Lessons from SDGE

Companies can learn a few lessons from how SDGE used Twitter:

1) Dig a well before you are thirsty

SDGE had invested twenty-four months and 825 tweets into building its Twitter channel. During that time, not only had it gathered 16,000 followers, but it had simultaneously established the channel as a credible place for corporate information. Had SDGE waited until the event before using its Twitter channel, it’s likely that the company wouldn’t have had the experience to know how to use it effectively.

2) The media follows Twitter
The media is interested in more than just press releases and press conferences. They also monitor Twitter, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times which lead its first online article of the event with a screenshot of an SDGE tweet.

3) Create a hashtag
Within one hour of its first tweet about the event, SDGE started using the hashtag “#sdoutage.” Hashtags are useful for people to monitor all conversations about the incident, above and beyond what the company is saying about it.

4) Ask for help
Turning on a power grid is much more complicated than turning on a light-switch, and therefore, SDGE needed the cooperation of its customers to help bring the system back online. It did so by asking them for help, such as turning off appliances and spreading the message to other customers.

5) Adjust the message
During the course of the event, the informational needs of the audience changed. At the beginning of the crisis, people needed to know two things: what was happening and what the company was doing to fix the problem. Once those messages were delivered, the company switched to help customers cope until power was restored. As neighborhoods were reconnected to the grid, the company prepared them with steps to take before the lights came on. Finally, after power was fully restored, the company switched to advisories that asked customers to conserve power until network stability was achieved.


In all, SDGE showed how companies can use a channel limited to 140 character messages to communicate in real-time during a crisis.

Is your company prepared to do the same?

This summer, I started writing a book called The Rule of Thumbs. Named after a blog post that I wrote ten months ago, the book covers the research that I’ve been conducting since I wrote Read This First.

While writing, I came across an amazing success story that demonstrated some of the book’s most important principles. The story involves a young musician by the name of Julia Nunes, who used social media to raise $78,000 US in thirty days–for her yet-to-be-recorded CD!

The story demonstrated so many of the book’s concepts that I wanted to release a case study immediately. The result is the following e-book: The Rule of Thumbs.

Please feel free to download a copy in your favorite electronic format: PDF, Kindle, iPad, or EPUB. The e-book is free and requires no annoying sign-up shenanigans.

Please let me know what you think of it!

Aug 5, 2011

Last year, I met an amazing gentleman who ran a nonprofit organization. Immediately taken by his passion, enthusiasm, and deep technical knowledge, I had decided to volunteer for his organization before he finished his pitch. From that meeting onward, my role was to help communicate through new/social media channels.

Walking away from that meeting, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Figuring that others would be just as impressed with his passion and enthusiasm, I grabbed my Kodak Zi-8, and produced a video interview of him.

The video came out exactly how I wanted. The gentleman, sitting at his desk,  looked relaxed. His eyes lit up when he talked about his project. He went on to describe his personal motivations–some that reached back over 30 years to when he attended middle school. The resulting video was everything that I could have asked for. I loved it.

He hated it.

The man explained that it didn’t portray the image that he had of himself–essentially an uptight “professional,” wearing a buttoned-down collar, tie, and suit jacket. He lamented that my interview made him look “hokey.”

I reviewed the video looking for hokey. I didn’t find any. All I saw was the natural born leader who had convinced me to follow him…the same leader who, through this video, would likely convince others too. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get past the fact that I had captured who he was instead of who he thought he should be.

Most companies spend too much time and money on how they should be perceived instead of who they actually are. They justify this deception by calling it “branding.” The problem is that nobody outside of your company buys the charade. People have great BS detectors. Humans are programmed to rally around the authentic and to ignore the contrived.

Sadly, I don’t volunteer for this organization anymore. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I don’t believe in perpetuating the drivel that most corporate communicators are trained to spew. But the story underscores important questions that every company and non-profit should ask themselves while developing content:

Who are we trying to impress? Internal audiences that will never buy our products or services, or external audiences that will?

Photo Credit: Library of Congress