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Victorian gas crisis

Kelly Parkinson

Director

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The brief:

On Friday 25 September 1998 at 12:30pm a series of fireballs tore through Victoria’s main gas processing plant. Natural gas supply to the State, home of Australia’s major manufacturing industries, was crippled. Immediately VENCorp – the gas transmission system operator – invoked its special emergency powers to protect the gas network, restricting the use of gas left in the system to only emergency services, such as hospitals and aged care homes. The Victorian Government brought in Kelly Parkinson to manage the entire communications component of the emergency. Among the most serious crises faced by the State in the post-war period, it was one of the largest gas turnoff and re-light programs in the world, posing significant risks to consumers. The challenge was to communicate to all four million Victorians how to turn their gas meters off and later back on safely, and avoid injuries and any serious incidents. Major manufacturing industries stood down 150,000 workers as the supplies were predicted not to return for weeks. Losses were estimated to cost the State hundreds of millions of dollars. When industries closed down flow on effects in the supply chain were felt throughout the Australian economy. Of major concern to the Natural Gas industry, was that consumer confidence in the product would be eroded. Initial market research indicated a drop in Natural Gas buying intentions. Victoria’s diverse ethnic population meant it was important to communicate to each of these groups in their own language.

“I consider this to be the best handled issue that I have seen since I have been interested in public affairs issues in this state. This incident has been managed as well as it could have possibly been done - there is no higher praise than that.”

Alan Stockdale Treasurer of Victoria

The result:

The gas turnoff relied heavily on community goodwill and cooperation, which had to be achieved through communication rather than enforcement. Gas usage fell to less than 90% of normal levels and only around 450 of the 1.4 million gas customers were found to not comply with the restrictions. Ongoing research conducted throughout the emergency showed there was excellent recall in the community of all key messages. For example 96% of Victorians were aware penalties may be imposed for gas use and more than 90% were aware of the gas hotline. The media carried up to date information each day for the duration of the emergency. Largely this was very positive towards VENCorp and the Victorian Government. Overall public satisfaction with the adequacy of information received in the media was 8/10. In line with the communication strategy, the vast majority of people relied on the brochure as their key information source for re-light. The simple and clear safety instructions allowed 85% of Victorians to safely re-light their household gas appliances without assistance. Gas demand levels showed the community maintained rigorous compliance to the phase out of gas restrictions. Key to the success of the media communications was the VENCorp spokesperson was always available, open, concerned and human. During the height of the incident VENCorp’s spokesperson received around 150 mentions on major electronic media per day compared to the Victorian Premier’s 40. Safety was a fundamental concern and based on the vast numbers involved in the re-light, statistically a reasonable number of minor incidents were expected. Only nine minor re-light incidents were reported. Overall, when asked to rate how well the gas interruption was handled, VENCorp consistently received the highest rating of all organisations involved (7.4/10). Considering VENCorp had turned off the gas and these customers were having cold showers, this was a strong result. More importantly, ongoing consumer attitude research showed that while dented in the early days of the emergency, customer preferences for gas as a fuel have almost returned to pre-incident levels.

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