Andre Francis is young, hip and technology savvy. Better yet, he possesses a good sense of humor and stays cool under pressure. Thanks to this desirable combination of characteristics, Pepco — an electrical service provider to 778,000 residential and commercial customers in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery and Prince George's counties (Maryland) — enlisted Francis to help spearhead the company's new social media initiative.
“My responsibilities include the monitoring of Twitter and Facebook, writing blog posts and creating video scripts to be placed on YouTube and Flickr,” explained the 26-year-old media relations representative and Washington, D.C. native.
What reasons does an electric utility have for a social media program? Plenty, according to Francis. “Pepco understands that social media has changed the way the communications industry operates,” he said. “Although the traditional press release and news conference are not dead, they are no longer the only ways to connect with our customers and the public. We know Pepco is being referenced throughout many social media platforms, and our goal is to insert ourselves into the conversation to ensure the correct messaging is out there.”
Francis' communications skills and the program's value were put to the test last summer when severe thunderstorms walloped the Washington, D.C. area one Sunday evening in late July, knocking out power to approximately 300,000 customers — about half of Pepco's service territory. A computer glitch exacerbated the situation by giving inaccurate and inordinately long estimated times of restoration (ETRs) to customers who called in to report a loss of service. In turn, many of these people jumped onto Facebook and Twitter to vent their frustration.
“I spent the majority of that night finding customers upset over those long ETRs and explaining why they were inaccurate,” he remembered. “The next day, our staff photographer went out and took pictures of the storm damage, which I posted on Flickr and Facebook.
“When we realized this was going to be a multiple-day event for some of our customers, we decided to take things a step further,” he continued. “We videotaped our vice president of asset management explaining the situation with the false ETRs and what it takes to provide ETRs. We also shot footage of a lineman out in the field who showed the damage he was seeing and explained what the crews had to do to restore power. We immediately posted all of this information on Pepco's social media sites and most of customers were very appreciative.”
Surprisingly, Francis says the most challenging aspect of his job is not smoothing customers' ruffled feathers but trying to educate them about the work Pepco performs. A background in engineering helps him achieve this goal.
“It is a funny story,” he laughed. “I graduated from Howard University with a marketing degree, but up until my senior year, I majored in electrical engineering. My mom was not too pleased about my change of plans, but I knew marketing was a better fit for my personality. My job at Pepco is the best of both worlds, because it allows me to do what I love while remaining involved with the electrical industry.”
On evenings and weekends, Francis can be found furthering his communications skills by indulging in another favorite pastime.
“I'm a deejay,” he said. “I mainly work at clubs around the Washington, D.C. area, but I have had engagements in Miami, New York and the Caribbean country of Trinidad, where some of my extended family lives. It is a passion of mine that I thoroughly enjoy doing.”
Francis also spends as much time as possible with his young son, Cameron, and pays regular visits to Trinidad each year.
“People in Trinidad tend to be a lot more carefree,” he observed. “The hustle and bustle of the United States is pretty foreign to them. The downside of this is that good customer care is not considered a necessity in Trinidad. Seeing this reinforces the importance of my role at Pepco.”
It also gets him thinking about his future, which includes plans to someday start his own business.
“Within the next 10 years, I would like to open my own club or lounge since I'm already familiar with that venue,” he said. “Ultimately, I want to have a holding company made up of businesses that feed each other.”
For the time being, however, Francis is focusing his energies on growing Pepco's social media presence.
“The utility industry is a great place to be right now, especially for young people,” he said. “A lot of people are retiring, which leaves plenty of opportunity for employment and new ideas. Just try to remember that this is a conservative industry. I first brought up the idea of using social media to communicate with the public when I was an intern three years ago. People listened, but it always got pushed to the side. Eventually, the program became a reality. There is a time for everything.”