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Consumer Education Crucial to Your Utility’s PR Efforts

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Managing Editor of a specialty publication, former public relations practitioner Freelancer

I hold 32 years of experience in communications, mostly in journalism, with a decade in public relations, too. The first 17 years were spent in print journalism, where I covered, at various...

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  • Oct 13, 2021 9:06 pm GMT
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At various times in my career, I’ve been a general business reporter, a finance reporter for a business newspaper and also have written consumer blog posts for an education website.

As a general assignment reporter, I often wrote stories about people being scammed.

And I often warn my aged parents to be alert for potential scams – “Dad, you don’t know anyone in Oklahoma. Don’t answer that call! If it’s actually important, they’ll leave a message.” The same holds true, on different levels, for my college-aged son.

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You can see where I’m going …

Yes, I recently got scammed by someone impersonating my boss. I feel stupid now and, in hindsight, all the questionable signs were there, but I still fell for it. And my wallet’s a bit lighter.

It just goes to show that anyone – anyone, in this case, refers to your utility’s customers -- can be scammed. Even “The Simpsons” got in on the game, as a recent episode was all about the proliferation of scams and how they can ensnare anyone.

As always, what does this mean for your utility?

Well, utilities certainly aren’t immune from scams. In fact, they’re, in the minds of a scammer, good targets.

Con men (and con women) impersonate utility employees and try to squeeze phony payments from unsuspecting consumers. In the places where customers can choose their energy providers, there are plenty of attempts at misinformation occurring – not to mention lots of fine print -- and there are even reports of outright slamming.

It’s human nature for people to be scammed. Some cons play on greed, which is always a powerful force and causes poor judgment. Other cons play on confusion, which is understandable considering how complex society now is compared to even a few years ago.

Then there’s the trust factor. Most utilities have trustworthy reputations – the light switch always works – so customers want to oblige when “utility employees” come calling. They think they are doing the right thing.

This means that your utility needs to regularly reach out to its clients with clean, concise information they can use to fight scammers.

Start with your website. There should be a dedicated section with consumer-related material, along with discussions on how to spot potential scams, as well as what customers should do if they think they’ve been victimized. Update this site whenever you hear of new scams going around involving your utility

It’s important to remind customers that legitimate businesses never solicit sensitive personal information through insecure channels like email or text messages. Nor do employers go door-to-door or other common tricks of the scammer trade.

Bolster your consumer education efforts in your bill mailers. This should be an evergreen topic trotted out every few months.

The same holds true for issuing press releases about consumer topics. And any public presentations your utility makes should touch upon consumer education.

When there’s an actual scam going around involving someone impersonating your utility, be sure to respond immediately on every channel possible (website, press release, social media) to let the public know what’s happening, how to deal with it and what you’re doing to minimize the problem.

There also needs to be a strong media component in any response from your utility.

Most television stations have consumer units and/or reporters. Push them to do a segment if there’s a widespread scam. Scams are a common topic for the media to report about.

Meantime, addressing a scam through an op-ed/guest column/radio or TV interview is a good way to show that your utility is being proactive and cares about its customers’ welfare. Bolster your public perception by having someone prominent in the utility be the main interview subject or the person whose byline appears on any written material.

There are other actions to take as well.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends contacting the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in regards to any phishing scams. Encourage customers to forward any phishing emails impersonating your utility to the Anti Phishing Working Group at antiphishing.org/.

You should certainly call local law enforcement, too. Scammers are hard to catch, so don’t expect the police to solve your problems, but perhaps the scammers will move on to another target.

Because your utility is based on trust – and, as mentioned before, most utilities enjoy a favorable public perception – it’s critical to maintain that trust whenever you’re under assault. You owe it to your customers and the public at large to be responsive.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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