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Crisis communications lessons from a statement made by the UK National Grid CEO

On August 9th the UK experienced its largest wide-area power outage for over a decade, causing widespread disruption. Following the incident, National Grid CEO John Pettigrew issued a crisis communications statement, which provides some interesting lessons.

The statement is reproduced below with some learning points inserted by Continuity Central’s editor, David Honour.

“There is never a good time for a power cut. But ten to five on a Friday afternoon in August, when people are trying to get home to their families and friends after a hard week at work, is one of the worst.”

Learning point: Mr. Pettigrew recognises the extent of the difficulties caused by the incident and attempts to express empathy with those impacted.

“Since that partial power cut, thousands of colleagues across the industry have been working hard to ensure the system is robust and to understand exactly what happened, and what we should do differently in the future.”

Learning point: Mr. Pettigrew quickly draws attention to what National Grid is doing in response to the incident rather than focusing on the details of the incident itself.

“Contrary to some erroneous media reports, I am not on holiday - indeed I’ve been at my desk almost all weekend. As CEO of National Grid PLC ultimately the buck stops with me.”

Learning point: taking the issue of reports that he has not been available to help National Grid respond to the incident head-on, Mr. Pettigrew makes the necessary statement that ‘the buck stops with me’ and emphasises that he is in control of the situation.

“It’s our responsibility to keep a resilient, reliable, affordable – and low carbon – energy system running in the UK. And one that can stand up to the most unforeseen and coincidental of shocks to the system – such as two power plants, one gas plant and one wind farm, accounting for 5% of the UK’s electricity and power needs, both taking themselves off the network almost simultaneously. While I am confident we do plan for all eventualities, for the most extreme events an unfortunate consequence can be that a fewer number of people suffer short term power cuts to protect the wider system and UK energy consumers from more sustained and widespread power losses.”

Learning point: emphasising that this was an extreme event, Mr. Pettigrew tries to say that the National Grid is prepared for all eventualities and that the power outages were a planned consequence; but does telling people who were impacted that they are effectively ‘collateral damage’ really hit the right note?

“Rest assured we have been doing everything in our power to understand the exact sequence of events and consequences of Friday evening. The whole UK energy industry needs to understand the causes of this power cut and also why it was able to create such significant disruption to services across Great Britain, particularly the transport network.”

Learning point: is using the phrase ‘everything in our power’ useful? Apart from being open to the interpretation that Mr. Pettigrew is trying to make a joke out of the situation with an unfortunate pun, it also weakens the statement that National Grid is committed to fully investigate the root causes of the incident.

“I am encouraged therefore to see that the government has commissioned its own Energy Emergencies Executive Committee inquiry, with which we will be co-operating fully. Usefully, this could address a number of questions: Why did two generators fail simultaneously? Was there any link at all with greater use of renewables on the network (we don’t at this stage believe that was the case)? Why did the failure of two generators cause such disruption? Why, when there was a limited outage, was the national rail network impacted so severely? What are the lessons?”

Learning point: by welcoming the independent investigation, Mr. Pettigrew is attempting to turn what could be seen as a negative into a positive. He also attempts to retain control of the agenda by suggesting the parameters within which the investigation should operate.

“We will need to reflect seriously on to what degree these issues sit with National Grid, either with our electricity transmission business or the independent Electricity System Operator (ESO). We are already well into our own internal investigations looking at the performance of our networks and the actions of the ESO and will be reporting our findings to Ofgem and Government by the end of this week, I would encourage other players involved in Friday’s events - the local distribution companies, the generators, Network Rail, the train operators - to be equally forensic in their own investigations.”

Learning point: here we start to see the first elements of passing the buck – with Mr. Pettigrew highlighting that local distribution companies, the generators, Network Rail and the train operators could all be a fault. Does attempting to pass at least part of the blame for the impacts of this incident sit well with stakeholders? Probably not.

“Nevertheless we shouldn’t be too hasty to declare a complete failure of our current system. Whilst this event was due to a rare and exceptional combination of circumstances, we were able to restore power within 7 minutes. The system did the job that it was designed to do – by protecting many more millions of customers nationwide from potential loss of power. Our own customers, the DNOs, had all restored power to their own customers within 45 minutes. We don’t underestimate the inconvenience and disruption this caused however, and one of the questions we will be addressing as an industry is whether the system as it is currently designed prioritises power supplies in the right way.”

Learning point: after previously accepting responsibility for maintaining the resilience of the power supply network, Mr. Pettigrew weakens the strength of accepting responsibility by basically saying here that ‘the impacts weren’t really our fault’.

“Secondly – though scant consolation to those affected over the weekend – an incident on this scale has not happened in the UK since 2008. The fact that this happens so rarely is why it becomes so widely talked about. Contrary to the comparisons in some parts, the UK is not Argentina, and even after Friday’s events, we have statistically one of the most reliable energy networks not only in Europe, but anywhere in the world. This is the result of the energy industry investing £100bn in distribution and transmission networks since 1990. In the past 6 years alone, National Grid has invested £10bn in improving the security, integrity and carbon performance of UK energy supply markets. Power cuts are actually 60% less frequent than they were when I started working at National Grid back in 1991.”

Learning point: stakeholders aren’t interested in history after a major incident; they are only interested in what happened, why they were impacted, and what the company is going to do about it.  The facts presented by Mr. Pettigrew may just be seen as attempts at self-justification.

“Thirdly – we are certain this was a result of a freak coincidence and not a cyber-attack. While we must not be complacent and must continue to be vigilant, our investments in cyber security defences provide a silent shield to UK power supplies.”

Learning point: a good, clear statement which stakeholders can understand and take on board.

“We can and must learn lessons from Friday evening, as National Grid, as an energy industry and as a society. These are not new things for us to consider as a business, but this is a stark reminder of how critical energy can be to every day life. We continue to invest to make sure we supply cost effective, reliable and green power that meets the ever-changing needs of a society that is choosing to live, work and travel in different ways from before. These investments must sustain an energy system that is becoming more complex in the requirements of the society it serves. And they must do so without energy users needing to pick up the tab for over-engineered resilience.”

Learning point: is using a crisis communications statement as a marketing opportunity a good idea or does it dilute the stronger messages given earlier in the statement? Does the comment about ‘over-engineered resilience’ hit the right note? What is Mr. Pettigrew trying to say here? It could be interpreted as sign-posting resistance to the future findings of investigations into the incident and a reluctance to invest in further resilience measures.

“That is what we at National Grid will continue to focus on with government, regulators and our customers in the coming days. None of us wants a repeat of the events of Friday.”

Learning point: finishing with a reiteration of National Grid’s determination to avoid a repeat of this incident hits a good closing note.

Statement source

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