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9 July 2012

How utility company National Grid harnesses social media

Tim Gibbon, director Elemental By Tim Gibbon

Utility company National Grid delivers electric and gas to millions of customers every day. Many years ago, it would be perceived as delivering magic right into the bosom of home, but now it’s the norm. We couldn’t live our busy modern lives without the convenience of light and head at the touch of a button, in fact we take that for granted.


Logo for the National GridHowever, beyond the engineering, technology and services that the utility company provides, there’s a growing importance of how National Grid communicates with is customers, which inevitably now includes social media. In an interview with the Social Media Portal (SMP), Patrick Stella, lead media representative at National Grid explains how the utility company integrates the channel, not ignoring what is considered traditional media ensuring the relationship between the utility and its publics is on track. Not so long ago National Grid’s focus would mostly be on journalists, but now with growth of social media, this includes consumers more than ever.


Stella highlights that although more utilities are reaching out to customers using social media, they weren’t early adopters and rightly so. He explains, “They are [sic] utilities conservative institutions that are rightfully guarded in what they say publicly and how they interact with their customers… All utilities are just beginning their journey into the social media world both in the UK and Europe as well as in the US.”


Just one challenging factor many business, particularly the older and more hierarchical they are, will face is achieving social media buy-in and Stella offers some advice on doing this, “Relentlessness. Find examples of success either from your company or case studies if needed. One of the advantages of social media is that it is something you can monitor on your own for a while to find those examples and show them to management and explain how engagement can help the business or organisation…. social media initiatives often come from the bottom up in an organisation, not from the top down, so you have to stay in front of your top management at every opportunity until they finally start to see the value of social media engagement. Resourcing social media activity can be significant and any chance you have to find a supporter in the upper ranks is an opportunity you need to take full advantage of.”


Photograph of Patrick Stella, lead media representative at National GridAn element of making beyond the powers that be upstairs is the legal team, whether they are based externally, or in-house. It’s not a case a shutting down activity or unleashing what maybe considered uber creative campaigns, its just common sense that can often be ignored. Stella concurs and also highlights how customer services become an increasingly important element, “All those who see value in social media engagement are valuable. Legal support is key! If you can get legal support, it helps ease upper management concern. Social media should be an extension of human resource policy that already exists so finding legal support should not be overly difficult. Customer service is another important stakeholder than can be very helpful in their support. After all, what is social media if not a tool to connect with customers?”


Depite the near obsession of anything social media related and its continual growth, Stella still thinks there is room for social media specialists. He points out with all the noise, the good and the bad across social environments there is a greater need for people that can manage conversations and content more objectively. Keen to stress the need to leave the rigid confines of the corporate trappings behind to wade through the content to present a clear, useful and valuable voice. He isn’t the first to point out the greater responsibility that journalists have and how what they do is also more valuable than ever.


Between the two parties there’s a greater joint responsibility to ensure the information communicated is more transparent and useful. The rivalry between brands and media is insanely competitive in reaching the same audiences. With businesses having more channels to reach publics directly and social media a catalyst in making this possible, this responsible this as is even greater. Utilities have the further responsibility in their duties to inform publics when services are affected and unfortunately when there are incidents that can life threatening. It’s where communications could become complicated and essential that organisations cut through the hype and even their own bubbles to provide a level of service many are simply not used to.


Sage advice is rarely heard from many organisations of this nature that are embracing social media - regardless of any well-meaning intentions they may have, but Stella has plenty. “Social media is about breaking down the walls between consumer and corporation so when an organization uses social media, they need to make sure there is a human being associated with it, and not the corporate flag.”


Predictions are a double-edged sword and although they can easily come back to haunt professionals. Stella dodges this providing some forthright opinions on what could have an impact, albeit some quite safe, so he won’t be shoving any skeletons back into the wardrobe.


National Grid online

National Grid on Twitter @nationalgridus
National Grid on Facebook
National Grid website

Tim Gibbon is a Director of Elemental, the communications consultancy that created and manages the Social Media Portal (SMP). Gibbon interviewed the the National Grid in a recent article published on and for SMP.

Categories: Social media, Marketing, Elemental

Tags: National Grid, Patrick Stella, utilities, utility company, utility companies, social media, social media buy-in

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