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

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; C01

The crisis control center of Pepco this week is a repurposed conference room, which smells like ambiguous takeout. Anybody who is in charge of anything has spent the past several days around a giant table at the corporation's downtown headquarters, strategizing how to restore electricity to the thousands of homes that lost it during Sunday's storm. A whiteboard keeps a tally of the powerless: 122,749, as of 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Throughout the building meander the Blue Shirts, the media specialists who all wear cerulean Pepco button-downs in case they are asked to give interviews.

"Do you need a bottle of water?" one Blue Shirt asks another.

"I need a lobotomy."

Tucked away in a nearby cubicle is Andre Francis. Blue Shirt Numero Uno. The first line of defense. He is in charge of monitoring the company's social networking sites. If, at any point this week, you have been compelled to log onto Twitter and rant in the general direction of Pepco, the person you are yelling at is Francis.

He is 25. This is his third day on the job.

How much would you say, Andre, that Twitter activity has gone up this week?

"I would say," Francis says, "it has gone up ridiculously."

Take, for example, this one Twitter user, who goes by "brad_stonegate." "He's written a few times," Francis says, pointing toward his computer screen, which is currently open to the social media browser TweetDeck.

Brad_stonegate has, in fact, written seven Tweets describing how "totally clueless" and "completely incompetent" Pepco is for failing to fix the power in his Silver Spring neighborhood.

Francis pauses, fingers poised over his keyboard, trying to craft a helpful response that will not enrage Mr. Stonegate even further.

"I totally understand your frustration," he finally writes, as PepcoConnect. "If you could send me a link to your listserv I can get it over to Customer Care." To another user, upset about a fallen tree, he provides Pepco's complaint hotline.

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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