Columbia Gas PR fail: Don’t brag about accomplishments while your customers freeze

Photo: WFXT

Columbia Gas workers made a mistake that led to dozens of injuries, one death, and more than 60 house fires and explosions in communities north of Boston. Then the utility shut off service to over 7,000 homes. Now, while many of those homes are still taking cold showers and freezing, it has issued a press release bragging about completing some repairs. This is insensitive and stupid.

After the incident on September 13 of this year, the company determined that it needed to replace all the gas pipes and appliances of affected customers. As you might expect, this is an enormous job, and the company will miss its November 19 deadline to restore service to everyone. Here’s the thing: this is New England. Fall here doesn’t just mean pretty leaves. It means cold nights in October and November, and many of the people without gas service are now living without heat or hot water. The company tried to distribute space heaters, only to find that most people’s electrical service can’t handle them.

When your mistake has put customers in this situation, you have a responsibility to be sensitive to the people you’ve hurt. Did Columbia Gas live up to that responsibility? Let’s take a look at its latest press release.

Columbia Gas Completes Gas Pipeline Construction Project, Now Fully Focused on In-Home Work

Milestone marks installation of nearly 45 miles of main line, 5,000 service lines

LAWRENCE, Mass., Oct. 30, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Columbia Gas of Massachusetts today announced the completion of its gas pipeline construction project, achieving a major milestone on the path to restoring gas service to the Greater Lawrence area. The completed construction—the ‘gas-ready’ part of the recovery effort—included the installation of 43.5 miles of gas main lines and 5,086 service lines, the requalification of nearly 12.3 miles of main line polyethylene pipe, and provides state-of-the-art infrastructure and enhanced safety features for the entire system. The pipeline construction, or ‘gas-ready’ effort, was completed three weeks ahead of schedule.

Separately, last week, local and state officials and Columbia Gas announced an updated timeline for the ‘house-ready’ process and efforts to pursue rapid relights. This includes repairing and replacing equipment and appliances in homes and businesses so they can safely receive natural gas. With the construction part of the recovery complete, Columbia Gas is now renewing its focus on the ‘house-ready’ aspect and shifting resources and staff to that work.

On the construction milestone, Joe Albanese, Chief Recovery Officer, as appointed by Governor Baker, said: “Over 29 days, NiSource and pipeline contractor crews from 10 states pulled together to complete this unprecedented engineering operation efficiently, and most important – safely. It was a first-class team that planned and executed this project. While this is an important milestone, we are well-aware the complex work inside homes has faced challenges, and we are laser-focused on increasing the pace and productivity of that work.”

Pablo Vegas, Chief Restoration Officer for Columbia Gas said: “I’m extremely proud of our employees, contractors, partners in local and state government, and indeed, the entire community who have helped make this phase of our effort to restore gas service to the Greater Lawrence area go so well. Now we will focus our energy and resources to the in-home, ‘house-ready’ part of the project. As we’ve said, we are committed to making homes ‘house-ready’ as safely and efficiently as possible, and that important work continues.”

About Columbia Gas of Massachusetts
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts delivers clean, affordable and efficient natural gas to over 320,000 natural gas customers in southeastern Massachusetts, the greater Springfield area and the Merrimack Valley. Headquartered in Westborough, Massachusetts, the company is the largest gas-only provider in the state and is one of NiSource’s seven regulated utility companies. NiSource (NYSE: NI) is one of the largest fully-regulated utility companies in the United States, serving approximately 3.5 million natural gas customers and 500,000 electric customers through its local Columbia Gas and NIPSCO brands. More information about Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is available at www.ColumbiaGasMA.com.

About NiSource
NiSource Inc. (NYSE: NI) is one of the largest fully-regulated utility companies in the United States, serving approximately 3.5 million natural gas customers and 500,000 electric customers across seven states through its local Columbia Gas and NIPSCO brands. Based in Merrillville, Indiana, NiSource’s approximately 8,000 employees are focused on safely delivering reliable and affordable energy to our customers and communities we serve. NiSource has been designated a World’s Most Ethical Company by the Ethisphere Institute since 2012, is a member of the Dow Jones Sustainability – North America Index and was named by Forbes magazine as the top-rated utility among America’s Best Large Employers in 2017. Additional information about NiSource, its investments in modern infrastructure and systems, its commitments and its local brands can be found at www.nisource.com. Follow us at www.facebook.com/nisource, www.linkedin.com/company/nisource or www.twitter.com/nisourceinc. NI-F

SOURCE Columbia Gas of Massachusetts

When your audience is shivering, you have a responsibility to be sensitive

The PR staff at Columbia Gas are just like PR people everywhere — their press release template includes bragging and quotes. This rarely works even when the news is good, but when you’re recovering from blowing up people’s houses and leaving thousands taking cold showers, it’s a very bad idea.

While there is good news to report, Columbia Gas has also missed its deadline. So far, it has restored service to 1,309 of the 7,342 homes and businesses that have been without gas service since the incidents. The new date for service restoration is December 16, a month later than the original announcement.

Here are some puffed-up phrases sure to piss people off in such a situation:

  • Over 29 days, NiSource and pipeline contractor crews from 10 states pulled together to complete this unprecedented engineering operation efficiently, and most important – safely. It was a first-class team that planned and executed this project.
  • Columbia Gas of Massachusetts delivers clean, affordable and efficient natural gas to over 320,000 natural gas customers in southeastern Massachusetts,
  • NiSource has been designated a World’s Most Ethical Company by the Ethisphere Institute since 2012.

How would you feel reading about how great Columbia Gas is when it blew up your neighbor’s house, sent your friend to the hospital, or made everybody on your street take cold showers for the last six weeks?

Here’s how Columbia’s press release should have read:

Columbia Gas Completes Gas Pipeline Construction Project, Now Fully Focused on In-Home Work

Milestone marks installation of nearly 45 miles of main line, 5,000 service lines

LAWRENCE, Mass., Oct. 30, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Columbia Gas of Massachusetts today announced the completion of its gas pipeline construction project, including the installation of 43.5 miles of gas main lines and 5,086 service lines.

While this phase of the project was completed three weeks ahead of schedule, Columbia Gas has moved out the deadline for restoring safe gas service to all 7,000 affected homes and businesses, including repairing and replacing equipment and appliances in homes and businesses so they can safely receive natural gas. We recognize that this has caused major problems for our customers, and we are now refocusing our efforts on speeding up the process of safely reconnecting all of our customers.

For more information about Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource, see our web sites at www.ColumbiaGasMA.com and www.nisource.com.

SOURCE Columbia Gas of Massachusetts

Wake up, PR people

It’s easy to do things the same way you always did. It’s efficient. You’re good at it.

In a crisis, those habits will serve you poorly.

There is no law that says you must include the same company boilerplate in every press release.

There is no rule that says you must include a company executive’s quote in every press release.

There is no requirement that every phrase in the release must be upbeat and full of good news.

These are fine rules of thumb. But following them after you’ve abused customers this badly is malpractice.

The job of PR is communication. Communication requires an understanding of the attitudes of the people you’re communicating with. Use your heart and your common sense, and leave your muscle memory behind.

2 responses to “Columbia Gas PR fail: Don’t brag about accomplishments while your customers freeze

  1. Columbia Gas should hire you during this crisis. You might not be in the market as a “fixer” but your rewrite of their press release is perfect. To not show compassion for their customers when the company is the cause for their incredible inconvenience is simply inhumane. They should be putting them in hotels on any night that is colder than 35 or upgrading the electrical services in homes and apartments that can’t handle the space heaters. Or will they wait until someone freezes to death before that happens?

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