Empowered Participants in a Connected Age

Let me tell you a little story about being empowered in a connected age in order to illustrate how a participation culture is changing communications, grassroots efforts and is undoubtedly putting the fear of God into the hearts and minds of PR and marketing professionals.

For over 10 years, the section of the upscale neighborhood in which my home sits has experienced major and minor power outages. Usually two major and several minor ones per year.

What has made this issue particularly irksome is that my neighbors behind me have never been without power while I have as has the majority of our development (my 50 home-ish section is on another part of the grid). A flooded basement that cost me $6,000 in repairs, hundreds of dollars of food thrown out, and untold irritation and frustration have been just a few of the results.

Our utility, Xcel Energy, has been about as responsive as any monopolistic, regulated and bureaucratic entity is: not very. Then, after two outages within days of one another in August after Xcel implied a fix had been done — I blew a gasket. I had had just about enough and leveraged my squeaky wheel that needs to be greased ability to communicate and ratcheted up my pleas to an atypically responsive (and blogger!) Eden Prairie city manager, Scott Neal.

Neal opened doors for me and pushed to ensure that my voice in the wilderness was helicoptered out and not left in the woods to be devoured by bears. Neal’s blog post succinctly describes the issue and positive outcome.

I’ll take a little credit for being a diplomatic, nice, persistent pain-in-the-ass to everyone. It was clear I was capable of being an effective communicator and would do so in front of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (which I could), to the governor’s office (one degree of separation from Gov. Pawlenty) and all over the Web (which I’ve done). I made certain it was clear to everyone that I’d NEVER let go of this until a permanent solution was planned/budgeted for and implemented. Perhaps that attitude helped move things along.

The lessons learned on this adventure are many:

1) This takes a HUGE amount of time which most people cannot afford and why it doesn’t happen often. Since I can just ignore the communication tools I used (I know them so well and am fluent) and know how to effectively interact with and get the attention of officials (having played the executive game in the corporate world is helpful) and understand how to gain attention (which any corporate PR person cringes at) it’s somewhat easier to be effective. Again, most people can’t do this which is why many of us sit in a dark hole of frustration at being wronged and not knowing what to do about it.

2) It takes leverage. A local business in Eden Prairie was also experiencing power outages materially and negatively impacting their business. If I were responsible for managing the city of Eden Prairie, “Oh, sh*t” would be MY refrain if power outages gained Eden Prairie a reputation for being a very bad place to have a business due to unreliable or dirty power. Fortunately the timing of this business complaining to the city simply added to the perfect storm of events that brought my development’s issue to the forefront and gave me the leverage to get an audience.

3) Coordination and orchestration. One person is important….50 are better (the approximate number of my neighbors affected). Once I began to CC all neighbors on emails with Xcel Energy and the city, all hell broke loose. Neighbors offered help, money if legal action was necessary, time to bring this to all proper authorities, phone calling or letter writing if necessary and more. That’s why I did the web site too: a place to have a one-stop-shop for all the info related to this power outage problem.

As of today, it looks like my development is not the only area in our fair city where residents are up-in-arms over this issue!


It doesn’t matter if you’re a monopoly utility or a commercial organization that actually needs to be responsive to customers. You’d better pay attention or you’re going to lose business.

Case in point: I’ve yet to take the time to try to reach the buyer at Target Stores responsible for their TruTech brand due to my own experiences (see this post) as well as all the anecdotes told in the comments by others NOT happy with this brand since it’s not all that important and I don’t see myself as some sort of Ralph Nader-ite (far, far from it in fact). Wouldn’t the buyer at Target be interested in knowing what is frustrating customers? Or do they just look at return-ratios to determine if they should make a change or get a different supplier for the house brand?

The kicker? Target is now carrying Philips and Sony brand HDTV’s — and I’m in the market for one — but I’d never, ever consider buying electronics there again. Even a brand name.

More and more people are researching on the web before buying. Listening to influencers about products, causes and where our attention should go next. That is what is happening with people searching TruTech which, amusingly, spiked during the back-to-school season. Like me, many people were obviously researching brands on the Web and I had 100’s of pageviews per day for July and August on that one, TruTech post. How many people read that and opted to head over to Best Buy and buy a brand name instead?

Case in point: the iPhone price drop. Peek at this post for more.

Ignore the participation culture if you want but it’s growing more empowered by the day and any evil you do, bad product you release, poor practices you deliver, will most certainly and negatively impact your business.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Connecting the Dots Podcast

Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.