“I remember when I hit the wall.”
Amy Anderson rested an elbow on her desk and pointed at that moment in time. “Energy Northwest posted on Facebook a generation record achieved by Columbia Generating Station. Somebody went in and claimed—falsely—that Columbia’s design was the same as the plants in Fukushima and Columbia was susceptible to the same type of flooding.”
Anderson, an administrative assistant at the nuclear power plant near Richland, Wash., responded to the inaccurate poster without insults, sarcasm, or the incessant vitriol routinely exchanged on social media, but with facts—Situated along the Columbia River hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean, Columbia unquestionably would not be vulnerable to a Tsunami, Anderson explained to the poster, adding the power plant sits well above the area flood plain, and, as her coup de grace, Anderson cited a post-Fukushima Army Corps of Engineers study that concluded under a worse-case scenario in which all upstream dams failed in Canada and Washington, Columbia Generating Station would remain a “dry site,” and the nuclear facility would not experience flooding to a level that would affect its safe operation.
No snarky zinger, just a dispassionate, factual reply. The original poster had no comeback. Facts had prevailed.
It wasn’t long after that auspicious post, Anderson found herself correcting other inaccuracies about Columbia Generating Station posted on Facebook as well as in the comments sections of newspaper and TV stations’ websites.
“I had had enough of people talking trash about my nuclear power plant.”
Anderson has company. To balance the social media explosion—and the proliferation of erroneous and prejudiced online content, a growing number of Energy Northwest’s 1,100 employees are joining the conversation. Once ignoring false and biased posts, blogs and tweets, this emerging alliance of synergized fact checkers now actively browse the internet, engaged in an online whack-a-troll, rebutting unsubstantiated accusations from anti-nuke groups, debunking myths and fallacies, and most importantly, repeating en masse a consistent message about nuclear energy, and specifically the safe, reliable, carbon free and cost-effective power Columbia Generating Station provides to the Pacific Northwest energy mix.
“Energy Northwest’s total social media reach including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is about 10,000 people, but if we add 1,100 Energy Northwest’s employees, advocates and friends through other social media channels, the number jumps up to 760,000 people,” says John Dobken in Public Affairs. “And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to widen our audience throughout the Pacific Northwest, educate that audience about nuclear energy and the 13 energy products we have, because we have not only friendly folks online, we have not-friendly folks out there working against us.”
Strength in numbers
Recognizing the workforce’s promising influence on public opinion through social media, Energy Northwest has ratcheted up its recruiting efforts. Public Affairs has launched a series of outreach seminars for employees interested in joining the formidable team of EN advocates. Brent Ridge, Energy Northwest’s vice president for Corporate Services and chief financial officer, along with other senior leaders and Sid Morrison, chair of Energy Northwest executive board, attended the inaugural outreach seminar at Columbia’s Kennedy Auditorium.
“We have 1,100 potential professional communicators,” Ridge told the audience. “I watch the folks on Facebook, see you responding, and it makes me feel good to know that’s happening. It’s important you’re doing this at the employee level. It’s grassroots. It’s the right type of outreach.”
During the one-hour interactive training session, the Public Affairs team arms its recruits with an arsenal of facts and figures about nuclear energy in general and specifics about Columbia Generating station, along with the dos and don’ts when socializing online.
“During these training sessions, we provide employees with the tools and confidence to address issues impacting Columbia Generating Station head-on with friends, neighbors, and their elected government representatives,” says Carla Martinez in public affairs.
Those tools include the Energy Northwest Communication Guide, a 40-page, pocket-size doctrine employees can set alongside their computers or whip out of their pockets with their smartphones. Crafted and authored by public affairs, the guide is chocked full of factual, persuadable bullet points and elevator speeches that succinctly and convincingly argue nuclear’s environmental and economical value, and the workforce’s commitment to the health and safety of their community and neighbors. industry’s safety culture and , Columbia’s contributions to the pacific northwest, that includes as an energy resource and a source of revenue for the local and state economies.
Mind your social media manners
During outreach training, public affairs representatives lead students through a social media netiquette course, explaining what communication techniques work best when interacting online: emphasize facts, keep it positive and keep it polite. But that doesn’t suggest employees should walk away from controversy; rather they’re encouraged to runstraight toward it.
“Expect people to respond and be ready to engage,” Dobken tells employees, “just don’t feed the bears. Internet trolls will antagonize or post negative comments. Don’t add fuel to the fire by overreacting to them.”
Share and Share and Like
As part of its social media strategy Energy Northwest encourages its in-house advocates to share the company’s online content. Along with Facebook and Twitter, the agency posts content on Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, its blog NorthwestCleanEnergy.com, and YouTube.
“One of the greatest benefits of social media is the ability to amplify our message by sharing what we post,” Dobken says. “We put content out there, but we count on our advocates.”
Outreach training in action
That strategy worked in February when a research firm closely associated with the anti-nuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility, distributed a report that concluded Columbia Generating Station could be replaced entirely by renewable resources. On the heels of a local newspaper story about the report, Columbia’s ‘s conclusion. The weekend following the article, the newspaper printed a letter to the editor by a non-en employee that started, “Physicians for Social Responsibility continues to prove its ignorance of basic common sense.” The author then cited several facts about Columbia’s contribution to the Pacific Northwest’s clean energy mix—in wordage that by no coincidence matched one of the agency’s communication guide elevator speeches.
Champions for Columbia
Energy Northwest’s efforts to further broaden its base of supporters extends beyond its employees’ laptops and cell phones. Last summer, Energy Northwest hosted the Northwest Clean Energy Forum, attended by three dozen congressional staffers, utility leaders, union representatives, and bloggers who normally don’t brush shoulders with Energy Northwest. Mike Paoli, EN’s chief communication officer, says the forum’s objective was to lay the foundation for a coalition of supporters of Columbia Generating Station.
“That forum opened new doors for us,” Paoli says. “One attendee wrote two informative blog posts, one was picked up by an energy magazine with 250,000 readers across the nation. Another attendee invited us to a roundtable discussion with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Sen. Maria Cantwell. One participant presented our YouTube video on Columbia’s safety at the Oregon Public Utilities Districts Association’s annual conference.”
In the following weeks, the Washington state Democratic Central Committee passed a resolution supporting the nuclear power plant. “That resolution is a direct result of the forum,” says Energy Northwest’s chief financial officer. “The democratic party moved from ‘close that nuclear power plant,’ to a resolution saying ‘keep it open—it’s important to climate change and reducing carbon emissions.’ A member of our coalition drove that changing language,” Ridge said.
This spring (when here,) state Republican party passed a similar resolution.
Striking up the conversation on Capitol Hill
The high profile engagement of Energy Northwest employees might be catching on. Brad Sawatske, Energy Northwest’s chief operating officer, says the nuclear industry as a whole appears ready to break from its long-held posture/principle of laying low and is starting to join/take charge of the conversation in Washington, D. C.
“As an industry there’s been a lot of discussion and recognition of the fact that we haven’t done a great job at promoting ourselves as an industry,” Sawatske said. “We’ve tended to spend our time saying ‘out of sight out of mind. Let’s just be quiet and people will leave us alone,’ and that hasn’t’ been every effective for us. We’ve started to go on the offensive talking about what we bring to the table, specifically baseload, carbon free electricity for the country. So you’re going to see more coming in that area and we’re pushing for it as an industry.”
For Amy Anderson and the other advocates at Energy Northwest, it’s all about sticking up for their company.