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UNION BEACH, NJ - NOVEMBER 03:  A 'Thank You' ...

Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife

I have a stock answer whenever I’m asked why I’m good at PR: “It’s all about the relationships.” In PR, your success or failure is 90% driven by the types of relationships that you have with the media. Cultivating those relationships takes up a fair amount of your time and represents one of the greatest intangibles, which is what makes PR so hard to quantify. Digital media marketing, especially the social side, is not much different. It’s all about the relationships – with your customers.

Over the last several days, digital media has been playing a big role in keeping large parts of New Jersey and New York informed about Hurricane Sandy, power outages and the status of friends, family, and vacation homes. The digital communications efforts of utility companies and state and local governments have played a critical role in keeping communities apprised. Not surprisingly, some organizations did this really, really well; while others, not so much. Here are some lessons from the storm and its aftermath.

Lesson #1: Even when the power is out, people can still use digital media on smartphones.

I don’t know of anyone who went without a battery charge for more than a night during this crisis.  Interestingly, even the folks I know who rarely use social media were relying heavily on Facebook and Twitter for updates. This included tracking the status of family and friends, finding temporary refuge, identifying closed roads, locating open gas stations, getting information on where to donate, and keeping tabs on when their neighborhood would come back onto the power grid.

Lesson #2: Happy customers are informed customers.

One Facebook friend said it best (full disclosure, she works for a major media organization): Someone actually said “no information is better than misinformation.” Really? If information from trusted sources is handily available, it actually cuts down on misinformation and rumors. Just saying. Or, as I like to say in another stock phrase, I abhor a vacuum.

Public Service Gas & Electric (PSE&G), which has 2.2 million customers in New Jersey, had as many as 1.7 million without power after the storm. During the day, the company is answering questions and providing updates via Twitter, and every evening it is sending an email update to all customers. It’s also using its Web site to keep residents up-to-date on the status of power in each community. A PDF document shows the number and percentage of homes in each community that are without power, along with estimates of when it will be restored.

Such detail and attention to communication – as well as swift progress in getting homes back on the grid – has kept PSE&G criticism at bay.

Lesson #3: Use every available digital communications vehicle.

Thousands of people are displaced in New Jersey, and many towns either destroyed or still without power. With a presidential election on the horizon, state and local governments scrambled to accommodate all voters by setting up additional options for voting, as well as alternate polling locations. In the “best use of mobile technology” category, the state established an SMS system for those who lost homes – and therefore sample ballots. Finding your polling place was as easy as sending a text message with your address to 877877. Immediately, you’d get a response that told you where you should go to vote.

Lesson #4: Say it in your update – don’t make people click away.

My local township has a Facebook page, but rather than use it as a way to build conversation, it simply posts announcements. Unfortunately, it posts only the link to the announcement. The effect is disconcerting. “Alert. {link url}” is not helpful communication. Since it doesn’t tell me what the news is, I’m forced to click away. If I’ve got a slow or slippery connection – as was the case during the hurricane and after – I may not be able to link through at all. That’s trouble if the message is about contaminated and undrinkable water. Always provide the news in the post or update itself. Links should be additive – not the whole message.

Lesson # 5: Have a conversation, build a better relationship.

Newark mayor Cory Booker is known nationally for his Twitter engagement and boots-on-the-ground response to questions on his feed. But I’ve been particularly impressed by the Facebook page of the West Windsor Police Department. They’ve routinely posted updates throughout the crisis, answered questions, and followed up on every problem or inquiry. Their residents got the information they needed quickly and efficiently. What’s more, there is true dialogue on the page, with the department responding to individual comments. And judging from the number of “thank yous” and “great jobs,” they’ve been very successful in building a strong relationship with their community.

Those are my five lessons–you might have more and I would love to hear them below–but suffice it to say that we are all learning lessons every time a real-world crisis shows off how much we rely on social media and other digital channels.

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Diane Thieke

About Diane Thieke

Diane S. Thieke is a professional communicator with a gigantic passion for language and the ways in which human beings use it to connect with and understand each other. She firmly believes that the Internet is the greatest disruptive event in communication since the invention of the printing press, which explains her obsession with brand journalism and the current revolution in news.

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