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Social Media Portal interview with Patrick Stella from National Grid

Tim Gibbon (Social Media Portal (SMP)) - 15 June 2012

Social Media Portal interview with Patrick Stella from National Grid

Profiled - Patrick Stella, Lead Media Relations Representative for National Grid

National Grid logo 150x150Social Media Portal (SMP): What is role there at National Grid?
Patrick Stella, (PS): I'm the Lead Media Relations Representative for National Grid. I am the main media relations contact in the greater Albany, New York region. Albany is the capital of New York State.

SMP: Briefly, tell us about National Grid (for those that don’t know, hey you never know!), what is it and what does it do?

Photograph of Patrick Stella, Lead Media Relations Representative for National GridPS: National Grid (LSE: NG; NYSE:NGG) is an electricity and gas company that connects consumers to energy sources through its networks. The company is at the heart of one of the greatest challenges facing our society - to create new, sustainable energy solutions for the future and developing an energy system that underpins economic prosperity in the 21st century. National Grid holds a vital position at the centre of the energy system and it ‘joins everything up’.

In the northeast US, we connect more than seven million gas and electric customers to vital energy sources, essential for our modern lifestyles. In Great Britain, we run the gas and electricity systems that our society is built on, delivering gas and electricity across the country.

National Grid in the US delivers electricity to approximately 3.3 million customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island. It manages the electricity network on Long Island under an agreement with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), and owns over 4,000 megawatts of contracted electricity generation, providing power to over one million LIPA customers. It is the largest distributor of natural gas in northeastern U.S.

SMP: You recently chaired the first day and presented at SMI’s Social Media in the Utilities Sector event (what was your presentation entitled)?

PS: My presentation was titled “Social Media Relations” and focused on social media channels as tools in cultivating relationships with reporters.

SMP: Briefly what did you cover and what were the main things that utilities and your peers could take away from your presentation?

PS: In my role, most of my “customers” are reporters, so my presentation focused on how to strengthen relationships with reporters via social media and how to use social media as a way to “monitor” what reporters are working on. Many times reporters are reaching out to your customers via social media and if you are listening, you can gather important information on what reporters are working on and what your customers are saying to them.

In some cases you can even reach out directly to the customer and answer their question before a reporter starts working on a story. When this happens you have an opportunity to stop a possible negative story in the press and a chance to strengthen your ties directly with your customers.

SMP: Have you a presentation that we can point to?
Hyperlinks to video references in the presentation on YouTube

The rise and fall of the TV journalist

How social media has changed TV news

SMP: What were the main things that you’ve taken away from the event?

PS: The main thing I took away from the conference was the idea that corporate Twitter accounts and corporate Facebook sites are really counter to what social media is trying to provide. People want to access people who work for companies, not the company itself. They want someone to speak to them in plain, understandable language. I will be taking those things back with me as I continue to use social media in my daily work.

SMP: What are the differences between UK and US utilities in the way the social media is managed?

PS: Very little difference actually. Let’s face it, utilities were not the first ones to jump on the social media bandwagon. They are conservative institutions that are rightfully guarded in what they say publicly and how they interact with their customers. That said, the media and customer landscape is changing and utilities that can see that and allow greater freedom of interaction via social media will have an advantage over others.

All utilities are just beginning their journey into the social media world both in the UK and Europe as well as in the US. One of the other things I learned from this event was that there were more similarities between the UK and the US than there were differences.

SMP: Why is social media for utilities so important?

PS: Social media is not one thing on its own. Social media is a new tool we will use to interact with. We will interact with business associates, customers, the media and others using social media. If utilities do not engage in the conversations happening out there, those conversations will happen without their expertise and their input.

By engaging in the conversations, utilities and other businesses can react to the market and provide the services their customers want. It’s business 101 really. Before the growth of social media, would you want a story to appear in your local newspaper about your business without you commenting and providing your point of view? Probably not, so today do you want others having a conversation about your service without you being able to take part in it?

It’s a new way of communicating and utilities need to be part of it.

SMP: What would be your advice to help social media advocates secure better buy-in internally (from senior management and the board)?

PS: Relentlessness. Find examples of success either from your company or case studies if needed. One of the advantages of social media is that it is something you can monitor on your own for a while to find those examples and show them to management and explain how engagement can help the business or organisation.

As we learned at this conference, social media initiatives often come from the bottom up in an organisation, not from the top down, so you have to stay in front of your top management at every opportunity until they finally start to see the value of social media engagement.

Resourcing social media activity can be significant and any chance you have to find a supporter in the upper ranks is an opportunity you need to take full advantage of.

SMP: How can legal professionals assist in making social media buy-in happen (and any other in-house stakeholders)?

PS: All those who see value in social media engagement are valuable. Legal support is key! If you can get legal support, it helps ease upper management concern. Social media should be an extension of human resource policy that already exists so finding legal support should not be overly difficult.

Customer service is another important stakeholder than can be very helpful in their support. After all, what is social media if not a tool to connect with customers?

SMP: What are the not so great moments of what you’ve been doing so far in the utilities sector?

PS: Utilities have highs and lows and are often misunderstood by the public. For National Grid, the fact is, you go home and you expect the lights to turn on when you flip the switch and the gas to light up when you are ready to cook or turn up the heat. If that does not happen, that is a low point in your customer service. Whether or not the outage is caused by a storm, an equipment problem, or maintenance, it is an inconvenience for the customer.

I believe we do not do a good job of communicating what a true wonder it is that we are able to provide service to our customers as uninterrupted as it is. For National Grid in upstate New York, this means our average customers experience an outage of less than two hours, once a year. When you think about that, it is truly amazing service.

Social media is an opportunity for utilities to tell this story in a very personal way when it is done right.

SMP: What are the high moments of what you’ve been doing so far in the utilities sector?

PS: Funny that I mention our low moments are outages, because I feel that our high moments are also outages. In the northeast United States last year, National Grid lost service to more than a million customers due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Within seven days, we had more than 95 percent of those customers restored. Thousands of feet of electrical line were down, hundreds of poles needed replacement, and more than a thousand crews responded.

We were also to start using social media in new ways to communicate with our customers, show photos and predict restoration times.

I believe the work we do in a storm situation is some of the best, most impressive work a gas and electric utility can do.

SMP: What do you feel the next big steps for social media / networks are and what may be the impact upon the utilities sector)?

PS: You know what? I might be in the minority here but what I feel is really missing is the expert. The authoritative source. Social media is a great way to solicit expertise, but it is a catch-all. It’s a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. You know what bugs me? When someone asks me why I would read my local newspaper. You know those people who believe that everything is online and the old “media” or ways of communicating are no longer valid.

Social media is valuable, but it is not going to replace a journalist. In fact, as social media moves on and grows, the authoritative, professional third-party is going to be more and more valuable. Look at Angie’s List… people will pay for good advice. The problem is that Twitter and Facebook are filled with good AND bad advice and what you need is an objective (or as objective as you can get) outsider to sort it out. Now more than ever is the time for good journalism to be valued very highly.

Now, to get back to your question, the next step in social media is the role of the subject matter expert and how they can enter the conversation in a meaningful way. No corporate speak, no sponsorships, just an expert to sort out all of the information out there. The next step in the evolution of social media is a new kind of expert who can speak concisely, plainly and authoritatively within the social media sphere and be respected and valued. I think journalists can take on this role and that their value has not yet been fully understood.

Media relations and other employees of utilities can take on this subject matter expert role as well if they do it correctly and avoid corporate-speak. They can add to the conversation and provide useful information.

SMP: What are things that you see utility companies getting right?

Utilities are responding. They are investing in new technology for their infrastructure, they are meeting growing demands and they are listening to their customers like never before.

SMP: What areas do you think they may not be doing so well and can improve?

PS: Utilities are doing many things right, but they are not communicating what they are doing right very well. This is an opportunity for social media to play a larger role in telling the story of the utility from the perspective of the employees. The line workers, the customer service representatives, the community representatives. The human side of the utility.

We need to speak less like a company and more like people who happen to work for a company.

SMP: What are your top five predictions for social media throughout 2012 and heading into 2013 - how could this have an impact upon law and vice versa?

PS replies with:
  • It will grow. As I mentioned, social media use has been something organisations have approached from the bottom up and the acceptance is travelling upward quickly. I believe the discussions of how to get upper management to buy-in into social media will be a thing of the past in the next year. This will of course lead to more corporate policy on social media and that could impact legislation down the road.
  • Facebook’s sheen is going to wear off some. It already has now that it is exposed to the public market, but more from a chic factor. A couple of years ago, Facebook was the cool place to be. I have a 20 year-old step-daughter who is aggravated that people her parent’s age are even on Facebook. As more and more people sign-on, the younger generation will see it as “uncool” and find somewhere else to gather. In the next year, we will see Facebook become the “old guard” as it were.
  • Corporate policy and regulation will be running neck and neck to see what rules and privacy safeguards can be implemented. The bottom line is that if regulators feel that utilities are not moving fast enough to establish their own policies, they could establish those policies for them, so there will be a lot of debate around this.
  • Social Media will become less of an entity unto itself. The idea that social media responsibility lays with the media relations department, customer service, regulatory or community relations teams will become less and less an issue. All of these functions will use social media channels like we use the telephone or e-mail. There may be a “social media manager” to coordinate accounts and overall messages, but many people within the organisations will use social media to speak to their audiences.
  • Here’s a left field prediction… Google+ may grow more than you think. With the sheen dulled from Facebook and people searching for a better way to connect with “circles” of friends in one social media space, Google+ may start to make sense. The idea of maintaining a Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter account may start to lose its appeal if Google+ can make the case that you can do all of the things you do on those platforms with one Google+ account.

SMP: What are your top five tips for utilities companies relating to social media?

PS replies with:
  • Look for more ways to open up social media channels for your employees to use than you do looking for ways to limit access.
  • Let your employees speak for the company. Let your Tweet be from Patrick Stella, not National Grid. Social media users want to connect with people, not corporations.
  • Give the keyboard a rest. Find ways to use YouTube in your social media communications. It’s a lot more personal to be talked to than it is to be written to. Where you can, show video of your crews working to show the public what it takes to get power, gas, water and other basic services to them each day
  • LISTEN! Listen to what your customers, reporters, regulators, elected officials are saying about your company and your industry on social media channels.
  • DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO COMMUNICATE on social media channels. Make sure you have something to say before you say it. Don’t send a Tweet simply because you have not sent one in a while. Make your social media interaction something of value.

SMP: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Social media is about breaking down the walls between consumer and corporation so when an organization uses social media, they need to make sure there is a human being associated with it, and not the corporate flag.

SMP: Best way to contact you and National Grid?

Email: patrick.stella @
National Grid on Twitter @nationalgridus
National Grid on Facebook
National Grid website

Patrick Stella on Twitter @stellapds
Patrick Stella on Twitter LinkedIn

Now some questions for fun

SMP: What did you have for breakfast / lunch?

PS: I had two eggs and toast with copious amounts of coffee for breakfast. Lunch was a roast beef wrap. Thanks for asking!

SMP: What’s the last good thing that you did for someone?

PS: Everyday I make my wife’s coffee and hand deliver it right to her. Some days it might be the nicest gesture I make all day, but I try to make it the start of many good things throughout the day.

SMP: If you weren’t working at National Grid what would you be doing?

PS: Writing and trying to figure out how best to use this “Web 2.0” stuff. Not much different than what I am doing now, just less corporate.

SMP: What did you most look forward to in London, apart from guest speaking at the Social Media in the Utilities Sector (did you manage to do whatever it was you were looking for)?

PS: I had visited London about 10 years ago and really wanted a good English bitter on tap again. I certainly managed to do that while I was there.

I also used the time to visit the National Grid UK offices in Warwick and at The Strand.

SMP: When and where did you go on your last holiday?

PS: Camping in upstate New York.

SMP: What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office of a morning?

PS: A few things before I sit down... Turn on the coffee maker in my office, turn on the computer and start up Facebook and Hootsuite, and then look at the newspaper (yes, the real, old-fashioned print version).

SMP: If you had a superpower what would it be and why?

PS: Super speed like The Flash so I could get more done and then stop and enjoy the rest of the day.

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