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How Meralco got its Twitter name back

It took a typhoon to make Meralco take Twitter seriously. Just ask Joe R. Zaldarriaga, the company’s media relations manager. Until late last year, Meralco did not have an official Twitter account, at a time when a growing number of Filipino Internet users had starting using Twitter to keep track of fast-changing information. Compounding this problem was the danger that some user might pretend to be Meralco's Twitter presence and spread wrong information. In early October last year — a day before typhoon Pepeng was expected to make landfall in the Philippines — that's exactly what happened. A message circulating on Facebook claimed that electricity was going to be cut off in Metro Manila by nine in the evening. Zaldarriaga told GMANews.TV in an interview that since it was a rumor, he went on national television to clarify the matter. It wasn’t an easy time — both for Meralco and the country. Exactly one week before, storm Ondoy brought day-long rainfall that submerged three-fourths of Metro Manila, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. In some low-lying areas, it took many days, even weeks, before the floods subsided. The floods delayed energy restoration efforts due to risks of electrocution, especially in communities with waterlogged electrical equipment and wiring. Rampaging waters, which later turned to deep slush or mud, also made it difficult for rescuers to bring relief goods to survivors. Many were trapped on the second, third, and even fourth levels of their homes and buildings. They were hungry, thirsty, and powerless -- literally and figuratively. When the rains ended, those who were lucky enough to weather the storm fairly untouched were able to go out of their homes. They enthusiastically bought supplies, emptying shelves in many supermarkets. (See: Consumers buy goods in bulk, depleting supermarket supplies) Stumped by social media While everyone was buying everything in sight, Meralco — and its customers — were swamped with a flood of wrong information. Brownout rumors were being broadcast on Twitter. The culprit? A user who went by the handle @manilaelectric, whose Twitter page was even linked to the company’s website, lending it some semblance of credibility. To add to Meralco’s worries, another Twitter handle that should have corresponded exactly to its corporate name, @meralco, was already taken by someone else. The Philippines’ largest electric company, which has more than four million customers, was temporarily stumped by a social media platform known for its 140-character format. One week later, the devastation from Ondoy and Pepeng’s — cars and houses filled with mud, among other things — remained fresh on everyone’s minds. But @manilaelectric — whose Twitter followers grew by the minute — seemed high and dry. A late-night transformer explosion cut off power in parts of Metro Manila and Rizal. This was an opportunity for Meralco’s Twitter nemesis to return back to life. The fictitious Meralco account claimed to “deliver a blow-by-blow account," Zaldarriaga said. (See: Transformer blast cuts power in parts of NCR and Rizal) Twitter user @manilaelectric, who said that “he was coordinating with Meralco offices... was not only creating panic but also misinformation," Zaldarriaga added. And this time around, the Meralco executive had had enough. With the help of various Twitter users and staff members, Zaldarriaga tried to “scare off" @manilaelectric by asking him to refrain from using the company logo without authorization. They also discredited @manilaelectric by correcting the wrong information posted on the Twitter timeline, leading followers to unfollow the account. A social experiment And that was exactly when the company was prompted to focus on Twitter, Zaldarriaga said. Immediately, they sought and contacted the owner of the other Twitter account, @meralco, who happened to be — surprisingly enough — an American electricity price analyst based in Cagayan de Oro. Nick Nichols created the @meralco account in July 2008 as part of “a social media experiment," he said on his blog. “I've grabbed the @meralco namespace at Twitter," Nichols wrote in a blog posted on July 10, 2008, more than a year before Ondoy wreaked havoc on Metro Manila. “At any time I will gladly turn it over to Meralco." "Can you imagine the value of getting real time updates from Meralco over SMS during an emergency and being able to get information back to them, in real time?" he added. In another blog entry, Nichols also explained why he bothered to create the @meralco account. Whether his social media experiment was successful or not, one thing is certain: @meralco only had less than a dozen followers when Nichols finally turned it over to the electric company on the day of the transformer explosion. The @meralco account, which Nichols never used, "stayed dormant until October 2009 when Meralco contacted me," he told GMANews.TV in an email message. "I was thrilled when they called and asked to use the account. That was precisely why I had created the account." For his part, Zaldarriaga said that they are "very thankful to him" for turning over the Twitter handle. And the rest, as they say, is history. @meralco, which now has more than 10,000 followers, is currently handled by Kirk Campos of Meralco's corporate communications department. Today, anyone with a Twitter account can talk to Meralco — and perhaps even gripe about high power costs — by mentioning its handle. If customers have concerns regarding their bills, all they have to do is submit their service ID numbers to @meralco through direct messaging. Or they can always vent their angst by talking to @manilaelectric, who remains active to this day with 627 followers.—JV, GMANews.TV