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Don’t be Scared of Ghostwriting for Your Utility

image credit: ID 99382619 © HAKINMHAN |

Your CEO and the other folks in the executive suite probably are a pretty smart collection.

Despite those smarts, there’s a good chance they aren’t good at something. And that would be writing.

After 30 years in journalism and public relations, I’ve seen firsthand how poorly a lot of smart people write. That creates a problem because securing a placement for a bylined article or op-ed in the local paper or a trade publication is one of the more valuable ways you can promote your utility.

Rather than get a quote or two in a story, you can take from 500 to more than 1,000 words to make your case.

Think about the ways utilities are under fire these days.

If you’re a California utility, you can explain how your equipment isn’t necessarily responsible for wildfires — or how burying that equipment would be cost-prohibitive and impact consumers.

If you’re a utility that experienced widespread weather-related outages, you can explain how the repair process works and how you’re improving response time.

If you’re any utility that’s ever asked for a rate hike, detail the changing costs. Or write about how going green isn’t easy to accomplish.

Just remember that when you write on behalf of a utility executive there will be limitations.

Media outlets are looking for material that will be informative and interesting to a wide swath of the audience. That means anything that’s purely or mostly promotional is going to be nixed. A bylined article or op-ed is not a free advertisement.

If you’re writing for a general news outlet, consumer-oriented topics will be popular – ways to save money or be environmentally friendly are usually winners.

Industry publications may give you more leeway to promote yourself, but your competitors aren’t going to want to hear how you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Let’s talk about the writing itself.

Most executives are bad writers because they’re too promotional, then compound the problem by writing jargon-filled prose that doesn’t adhere to basic journalistic style.

That’s why you need to step in.

Well in advance of any deadlines, worm your way into a brief conversation with the executive who will be receiving the byline — 10 minutes is all you’ll likely need. Discuss an overall theme for the piece, then ask for four to six talking points that will comprise most of the article. Remember that you’re likely writing an overview, so stick to a few basic points instead of being comprehensive.

Remember to follow journalistic style when you write. If you’re not certain of a media outlet’s format, see what’s previously run and try to emulate that style.

Ideally, your work should include an introduction for a couple paragraphs, elaboration on the main points, a concluding summary and a call to action, if appropriate. Write with authority, but don’t be condescending.

In general, keep your paragraphs short, mostly one or two sentences. Vary sentence length to make your work more readable. Avoid industry jargon at all costs.

After writing a draft, share it with the executive and make changes as needed. Hopefully, the executive won’t want widespread changes; if they do, push back where you can, but remember the boss is always right.

Some back and forth may be necessary with the executive before you submit the article to the publication. When you have approval, submit it and a high-resolution head shot of the executive to the publication.

Alas, your job may not be done: The editor may push back, too, and want changes which, in turn, requires more conversations with the executive.

Andy Gotlieb's picture

Thank Andy for the Post!

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Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on Jan 10, 2019 5:19 pm GMT

Thanks for this good advice, Andy. [Disclaimer: As a writer myself, the rest of what I'm going to say will be biased.] I've seen how a good communications professional can serve as a "mouthpiece" for executives who are very smart and know a ton about their work, but don't necessarily understand the nuances of communicating their message to the appropriate audience. Smart execs understand the value of a team member who can always make them sound their best. 

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Andy Gotlieb on Jan 14, 2019 7:18 pm GMT

Agree 100 percent, but unfortunately not all execs see it that way.

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