26 May 2021

The Case for Using the Language of the Living Room

ERCOT’s pitfalls during the Texas freeze of ’21

Meteorologists were predicting a weather event that the Lone Star State had not experienced in decades – freezing temperatures for multiple consecutive days.

No one could have predicted that this historic winter storm would take the lives of almost 200 Texans. The casualties mainly resulted from hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and fatal injuries suffered by people who decided to light the chimney to stay warm. Several homes went up in flames, trapping entire families inside.

After these tragedies, legislators and other community leaders pointed fingers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a non-profit organization that regulates the state’s electric energy. Much has been said about how ERCOT failed to prepare the state’s infrastructure for the much-anticipated conditions.

Yet, when it came to crisis communications, ERCOT believed they were prepared. Only a month before the freeze of February 2021, leadership approved a revised crisis communication plan.

During the crisis, ERCOT took to Twitter to inform the public of their fate, but the tweets seemed to have been written by engineers for engineers. They were so unclear that the general public couldn’t even tell if they were reading good or bad news.

For example, some of the ERCOT tweets read:

“The agency has declared an EEA 2. Rotating outages may be needed to protect the system.”

“Weather, more generation outages last night bring load shed to 18,00 MW.”

“For today…generators to return, renewable output to increase = increased customer restoration.”

ERCOT’s communication attempts were riddled with “internal speak,” rendering their messages indecipherable to the public, and damaging their credibility.

What happened with ERCOT is not unusual. Organizations that fail to speak to their audience in “the language of the living room” fail to communicate. For this particular event in February 2021, when lives were in a balance, the words used in the Tweets defeated the fundamental purpose of communication: to convey, inform and inspire confidence, especially during a crisis.

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