March 29, 2010 in City

Avista social media man talks his trade

Dan Kolbet represents utility on Twitter, online forums
Johnst@Spokesman.Com, (509) 459-5419
 
Dan Pelle photo

Dan Kolbet handles social media for Avista. Here he is seen with a mural of Washington Water Power meter readers pictured in 1925.
(Full-size photo)

It’s a good thing Dan Kolbet is thick-skinned. Because he is “Dan_at_Avista,” the company’s social-media man who blogs and tweets about his company, and wades into the vitriol of online message boards where flogging Avista in the comfort of anonymity has become a form of electronic graffiti. About a year ago he convinced Avista executives that they needed to engage social media as a way to reach their customers. Despite some ups and downs, he has no regrets and is considered somewhat of a trailblazer in the staid world of regulated utilities, making presentations to other utilities interested in how to reach people. He has taken a few lumps in the process as he monitors online forums and then joins the conversations. Kolbet sat down for an interview last week after Avista drew public ire for its request to raise electricity and natural gas rates.

Q: In the last two months you have tried to explain and rationalize Avista’s profit margin, executive salaries and now an unpopular request for a double-digit rate hike. How did it go?

A: I’m not here to defend individuals. I see my role as offering more and accurate information on behalf of Avista. At least I’m out there talking to people. I think it helps.

Q:When does the Internet dialogue become inappropriate?

A: I don’t know. In these earnings stories, people tie profit to greed and it leads to a level of mistrust.

In the comment section I have been called a “spokescreature,” “disgusting and gross,” “overpaid,” and that I “work for a terrible company.” I can take it, but just give me the opportunity and talk to me. If these folks would come up to me in a store, they wouldn’t do this. It’s like the Wild Wild West.

Q: Have you been threatened?

A: Yes. One time Scott Morris (Avista chairman and CEO) stopped by to ask if I was OK.

Q: Are you heavily edited?

A: No. I’m given amazing freedom to do this. I did have to remove a picture of something once, but only because it was about a contract that hadn’t been signed.

Q: What’s your real job?

A: Employee communications. I help put out a weekly electronic newsletter about what’s happening at our company.

Q: Are literature and writing dying arts?

A: People may think so, but here’s the deal with social media: People are writing more now than ever before. Is it always grammatically correct? No. But they’re doing it. Why should they write in full and complete words and sentences when you can write in modicum and get your point across?

Q: Are you having fun at your job?

A: Yes. It’s an interesting job and there’s no want of work. And I have the opportunity to write for a living.

(In the interest of disclosure, Kolbet once worked at The Spokesman-Review. He answered phones and took scores for the sports section and worked on the night news desk as a copy editor. He left the paper to go back to school.)

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