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Pre-Halloween Snowstorm Drives Home Power Of Social

A rare late-October snowstorm in the Northeast illustrates how social has changed the way we communicate--and the ways businesses can leverage social media or be burned by it.

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I have power in my Massachusetts home as I sit and type this column. However, after a rare (not in my lifetime, anyway) late-October Nor'easter, many of my friends and neighbors are not so lucky. Some have been without power since Saturday, when the storm started, and it's not looking like we'll be back to normal any time soon as emergency crews struggle to deal with lines brought down by trees that were still bearing their autumn-hued (and really heavy when snow covers them) leaves .

It's at a time like this when I realize how much social networking has changed our lives and the way we communicate and consume information--not to mention the extent to which social can engender good will when businesses use it effectively or shine a bright and wide spotlight on organizations' foibles.

We lost power at my house for about two hours Saturday. No big whoop. Power restored, my family and I went about the business of sitting around and watching scary movies in anticipation of Halloween (a time we aren't usually hunkered down in the middle of a snowstorm). The next day we got up bright and early to clear the driveway, the back deck, and the front walkway, then decided to venture out for gas and a few necessities at Target. Little did I realize that I was about to embark on a journey of Odyssean proportions--all because I hadn't checked Facebook that morning.

Being daytime, I didn't notice that there were no lights on. Living in a rural community, I didn't hit a streetlight for a few miles. The fact that the streetlight was out was my first hint that something was amiss, but this particular light happens to be out a lot, so I didn't think very much of it.

Then we hit the next streetlight, and it wasn't working. Neither was the next or the next. OK, now I knew something was up. My fears were confirmed when we hit the one gas station that had both fuel and power. The cars were 10-deep at each pump, with people filling not only their tanks but as many gas cans as they could carry.

[Consider the 10 Scariest Enterprise Social Networking Mistakes to avoid terrifying mistakes.]

Our journey continued as we finally found another gas station, witnessed a near-fight between two people who were unwilling to give up what each thought was his rightful spot in the gas line, and ventured into a darkened but still open-for-business (thanks to a generator) Target.

Talking with people in line, I came to understand that power was out pretty much across the board in the towns surrounding me. How my house in my town came out of it unscathed (knock on wood) is beyond me.

"I have to check Facebook," I thought as we trekked home. Sure enough, my feed was filled with updates relating to the storm: Who had power and who didn't (with those who didn't updating from their smartphones); rants against local power companies whose reputations have not recovered since their "response" after a December 2008 ice storm in this region left many without power for weeks; advice for where to find water and gas; recommendations for where to go to charge smartphones and laptops; invitations from people who did have power to come on over and shower, get warm, and vent ... The list goes on and on.

Today, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I know--among other things--which roads are closed; which schools are closed; which of my bank's branches are open; that I will need a check or cash to buy lunch at one of our local restaurants because it has power but its credit/debit system is not working; where I could get shelter if I needed it; and how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning if using a generator.

I also know that the power company whose reputation could have used a boost won't get it because of its response to this event--or at least the way the response is being perceived. One Facebook friend, for example, is providing ongoing updates about the ratio of people with power restored to those who are still without (let's just say the numbers don't look good), and many of his many friends are commenting in kind. The company does not appear to have a Facebook presence, although it is tweeting updates.

The power of social is pretty incredible, and smart companies will realize during times like these how they can leverage social media--or get snowed under by it.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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