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After storm, Pepco PR man tries social networking to calm customer ire

Severe thunderstorms felled trees and power lines across much of the Washington area Sunday afternoon, killing Four people and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.

They're not perfect responses. He knows that. The only perfect response is, "I have magically fixed your power myself, using Scotch tape, paper clips and the powder of one finely ground unicorn horn."

What Francis provides aren't solutions so much as pressure release valves, preventing the public from boiling over with anger.

"You talk to Andre and you know you're talking to a real person," says Norma Davis, Francis's supervisor. It is as if he is engaged in active listening with the entire Washington region.

"I understand your frustration," he writes.

"I understand your concern."

"I appreciate your humor."

"Trust me, I understand. . . . I totally appreciate your patience during this frustrating time."

Francis's position was first conceptualized in the winter of 2009, during a cold snap that left many Pepco customers complaining on Twitter about their electric bills. When a local news station aggregated several of the complaints, Pepco tried to respond through traditional means, such as news releases, before deciding they needed to meet the disgruntled where they could be met -- online. Francis, a Howard University grad who had recently joined the corporate communications office, started a customer-oriented Twitter account as part of his other, more traditional PR duties.

Recently, Pepco decided to make Francis's social networking duties into a full-time position. His first official day in that job was to have been Monday. Then, on Sunday, came the storm.

In the past 72 hours, Francis has rarely left his desk, spending most waking hours combing through the abyss of Twitter, responding as professionally and reasonably as one can to people whose usernames include "BarkingMoose" and "ThyroidMary."

"Hey @pepcoconnect," writes someone going by KirillMorozov, "third world countries have more reliable power infrastructure than you."

"I'm from Trinidad," Francis writes back, "and would respectfully disagree."

Shortly after, another user jumps into the thread: "Since when is Trinidad a third world country?" demands SurreyElle, who also requests "a list of the idiots making the decisions over there so we know who needs to be fired."

"I've learned not to take it personally," Francis says. "There is a point at which I realize that nothing I can say will make people happy."

He will continue to work his way through complaints and #pepcosucks hashtags, until the electrical issues are resolved, until the customers are pacified. Then he will go home to Hyattsville, to the house he shares with his sister. His power? It's out, too.

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