Duke Energy : Reputation cleanup

More than a year after an environmental disaster, America’s biggest electricity provider maintains a thorough section on its corporate website explaining its response.

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The feature

In February 2014 a drainage pipe collapsed underneath one of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps along the Dan River in the US state of North Carolina. The breach released 39,000 tonnes of coal ash – the waste produced from burning coal for electricity – into the river. It was the third worst coal ash spill in US history, leaving 70 miles of the river in grey sludge, threatening wildlife and public water supplies.

Duke Energy maintains a section on its corporate website devoted to the incident, a year and three months on from the disaster. Signposted prominently from the home page, the landing page has links to a wide rage of material held on deeper pages in the section: a summary of the incident, details about Duke Energy’s response and a dedicated email address for information. Video is used extensively, with messages from the CEO and the company’s president for North Carolina. The company also provides fact sheets about coal ash, as well as links to regulatory decisions and current news about the recovery efforts. 

The takeaway

The company does not gloss over what happened, referring to the incident in matter-of-fact terms (if justifiably leaving it to the media to describe some of the more unpleasant details of what the spill did to the river in its immediate aftermath). The tone of all the content is straightforward and clear to non-specialists. Links to material from outside agencies such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the US Environmental Protection Agency lend credibility to the section, and provide more detail for those who want it.

In addition to providing detail for information seekers, the section also does a good job of promoting the company’s main messages – eg, we are sorry for the spill, we have changed our processes and we care about the Dan River and the environment. The videos are particularly effective in this regard. In one, the company’s North Carolina president speaks to camera, ‘I want you to know that we immediately took responsibility for the coal ash spill at our Dan River site and we’re determined to make things right.’ Another shows a Duke Energy employee explaining the company’s process for shutting down coal plants and ash basins.

Duke Energy, which also runs nuclear plants in the region, has good reason to respond effectively to any threats to its reputation for safety and environmental concern. The management has clearly decided that the corporate website is a key part of that reputation bolstering effort.

First published 13 May, 2015
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