Here’s how the Nogales International learned about UniSource Energy Service’s plan to turn off power overnight starting last Friday:

At around midday the day before, a repairman was in the office working on our phone system when he casually mentioned to a staffer that UniSource planned to turn off the power in Nogales for eight hours starting Friday at 10 p.m. The staffer told a reporter, who then called a UniSource spokesman to confirm.

The spokesman couldn’t immediately confirm the blackout, then called back at 2 p.m. – an hour before our print deadline for Friday’s edition – to say that yes, the company did plan to turn off power in Nogales the next night.

Due to the late notice, we only managed to squeeze a small notice onto Page 2 of the next day’s print edition. Then we posted the story online and linked to it with posts on our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.

The news spawned an immediate and emotional reaction. The online story, which we updated with additional detail as we received it, quickly rocketed to the top of our “Trending Stories” list and soon became the most-viewed story on our website in August. The initial Facebook post reached nearly 15,000 people and a follow-up post that UniSource would distribute free ice in advance of the blackout reached more than 17,000.

The posts also spawned dozens of comments, many from people alarmed at the ramifications for those with health conditions (“How about all those citizens on oxygen machines?”), concerned about local businesses (“So what is going to happen to restaurant owners? Are we supposed to charge UniSource for all the food that is going to be thrown away?”) or angry at the late notice and timing (“Who turns off electricity on a Friday night when people like to be awake late? Do this on a Monday night when people go to sleep early for work. Common sense. And let people know a week in advance…”)

Given the clear interest to the community, along with the array of possibilities to plan for, why didn’t UniSource give the community – and its newspaper, with the ability to quickly reach thousands of people – more advance notice? According to company spokesman Joe Barrios, it was a strategic decision.

Apparently, UniSource decided that the possibility that criminals would take advantage of a planned power outage outweighed “providing information that we knew our customers wanted,” Barrios said. In fact, he told our reporter, he never planned to contact the newspaper in advance of the outage.

The fact that word of the outage leaked anyway and NPD reported no unusual activity nor reported break-ins to homes or businesses during the blackout shows that UniSource made the wrong decision. The company should have spread the word well in advance of the planned outage and given citizens and businesses plenty of time to prepare. As for security, NPD has an able force and plenty of partner agencies it can call on for help. And it’s not like Nogales is an especially crime-ridden city to begin with.

By not being transparent, UniSource came across as aloof and disorganized. That’s not good PR for a company that already has a local image problem after stubbornly insisting on closing its payment center in Nogales in violation of its service agreement, only to re-establish it after the city sued.

Of course, local officials were also in on UniSource’s big blackout secret and opted not to insist on a change of course. But we’ll let a local citizen address that side of the equation.

(Clark is managing editor of the Nogales International.)

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