Refrigerator- and freezer-recycling programs suffered a major jolt in late November when JACO Environmental, one of the largest appliance-recycling firms in the US and a major program implementer for dozens of utilities, abruptly announced it was shuttering its operations. Utilities were left without any recourse and had to scramble to update their websites letting customers know their programs were temporarily suspended. And customers who were waiting for their refrigerator to be picked up and recycled were left not knowing what to do with a big hunk of scrap metal.

The NBC affiliate in Rochester, New York, reported in its article Pick-up Service Suspended by Refrigerator Recycling Company That Works with RG&E that JACO’s ownership was transferred to a receivership after failing to pay its debts to a lender. The news has forced many utilities to figure out how best to notify customers that appliance pickup services are suspended and rebate checks that had already been issued will not be honored by JACO. (Utilities will likely have to reissue checks themselves.) In some cases, utilities will also have to rethink how they will meet year-end energy-savings goals. Below we’ve included some screenshots of how several utilities notified customers on their websites.

ComEd’s message is straightforward and gives customers an option to call for more information. The message apologizes for the inconvenience and also provides alternative solutions for customers looking to get rid of their unwanted appliance.
ComEd website posting about appliance-recycling program suspension
Dominion directs customers to call its implementation vendor with any questions.
Dominion website posting about appliance-recycling program suspension
RG&E notes the program suspension and commits to keeping the page updated as new information becomes available.
Rochester Gas & Electric (RG&E) notes the program suspension and commits to keeping the page updated as new information becomes available.

For any utilities that have not yet notified customers, we recommend:

  • Updating your website immediately to let customers know the program is suspended; provide a number to call for more information
  • Contacting any customers who had a scheduled appliance pickup and providing alternative solutions or letting them know you’ll contact them once a new vendor is chosen
  • Notifying any customers who were recently issued rebate checks to let them know you’ll be replacing those checks

Whether you’re dealing with a downed website, a natural disaster, supply chain issues, or challenges with third-party contractors, there are some basic steps that underpin solid business disruption communications.

Identify the disruption and communicate to customers that you are aware of it through the channels that they are most likely to see. In these communications, identify where customers should go to learn more and get updates along the way. Initial notification channels will likely include the program website, social media, call center interactive voice response systems and/or customer service representatives, and media relations.

Rally key internal players and assign clear roles. Identify an operational lead to handle the logistics of disruption resolution as well as a separate communications lead. These two will need to work closely; it may be tempting to ask one person to handle both roles, but the demands of the situation and the potentially different skill and knowledge sets that are required to perform each role makes separating them beneficial. Determine a clear place for this key team to work and how they will communicate with one another. Limit the number of people involved to only those with actual mission-critical roles. More may seem better, but a highly functioning core group will be able to communicate with one another (and their results to outside stakeholders) more clearly and consistently than a larger, more complex group prone to crossed communication wires and duplicated/missing efforts.

Dig into the problem, assess risks, and develop audience-relevant messages. Only involve key players in order to get to the heart of the issue as efficiently as possible. This step includes not only spotting and noting operational issues, but also creating a list of affected audiences for whom you must tailor relevant communications. For a great guide on audience identification and message design, check out the Ready.gov Crisis Communications Plan guide for business disruptions.

Establish a regular communications cadence through your designated channels and equip or train any identified spokespeople with the communications plan.

Remedy the problem. The operational lead will take on the logistics of alleviating the issue and providing updates to the communications lead. The communications lead can then provide audience-relevant messages through established channels.

Conduct a postmortem. It can be a relief to move on once an issue has been resolved, but there’s a lot to be learned here. Document what worked, what didn’t and use this to bolster your playbook for the next unexpected communications need.

Introduce ongoing risk assessment and create initial communication plan sketches. The best crisis communicators have two things in common: a plan and the wherewithal to change it when needed. The steps above largely deal with the latter, but preemptive risk assessment and communications planning can be a real game-changer for organizations dealing with business disruptions. Once the storm has passed, review other business partnerships and lay out some initial thoughts on their risk factors and how you might communicate, should those risks come to fruition in the future. This doesn’t need to be all-encompassing, but a little early work can go a long way when things go sideways.

It remains to be seen whether ARCA Inc., the other major appliance-recycling player, or another energy-efficiency program vendor, will be able to scale quickly to meet demand.