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How Should Your Utility’s PR Department Handle Obituaries?

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

I hold 34 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...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Jan 21, 2022

One of the more-unhappy aspects of public relations is having to announce the death of an important person – past or present. Aside from the emotions tied to the death, dealing with the media isn’t always easy, and you don’t always get what you want.

I deal regularly with both funeral homes and mourning families that hope my newspaper will write a story-length obituary about the dearly departed. Often, they’re disappointed by my response.

My weekly paper, like so many others, only writes about the people who were transcendent in the community for one reason or another. That means I have to gently let down the families of a lot of reasonably prominent people who now believe I think their relative wasn’t worthwhile. That’s not the case, but there’s only so much space.

So, here’s some advice for how utilities can best publicize the passing of key or interesting employees, whether past or present.

Most importantly, be selective with who you suggest is obit-worthy.

Any past or former CEO, board chair or president is a strong candidate.

Then there are the more interesting candidates, which may require a bit of out-of-the-box thinking. That might be the guy who started working for your company in 1953 and was still an employee when he died. Or it could be the woman who fronted a briefly successful top 40 band in the 1970s, then went to work for your company. Or the lineman who was a champion ballroom dancer.

And don’t overlook one-time employees who found fame and/or fortune elsewhere. Your utility might not be a major player in the written obituary, but a mention can’t hurt.

Beyond that, other candidates aren’t likely to be publicized, even if they were relatively long-tenured and important at your utility. A chief operating officer from 1971-86 who moved out of the area in 1991 and was never heard from again isn’t going to get any traction.

Now let’s talk about getting information to the media. You may want to work with the funeral home handling the arrangements, but you should probably reach out on your own. Funeral homes sometimes call the media, but not always, depending upon the family’s wishes.

It’s crucial to provide the media with accurate information in a timely manner. Include ample background material on the deceased, highlighting his/her achievements at your utility. Also include information about their childhood, education, their career outside your company (if applicable), their family and the funeral details.

Look for interesting little details in a person’s life. An obit I wrote about a man who served as a cantor past his 100th birthday was livened up by a paragraph about how he and his siblings liked to get together and speak in exaggerated Irish brogues. The anecdote helped humanize a man who otherwise seemed like religion ruled his life.

Many people present the material they submit in obituary form comparable to what appears in the media. Feel free to do that, but in all likelihood your words will be heavily rewritten and the glowing tributes and unattributed details will be removed. That’s in part because most people are lousy writers and, in part, because they don’t follow journalistic formats.

Present your material directly to the media outlets, along with contact information for family, friends and utility spokespeople.

Make sure that the people you choose as contacts are willing and able to talk about the deceased – some family and friends will be too overcome with grief to do an interview, so get permission in advance to include them as a source.

Don’t forget about photos.

Provide a headshot of the person, preferably one that looks like how the person will be remembered. You can provide a sampling of late in life and early photos, too, although there’s no guarantee the media will use them. Assuming you’re submitting the photos electronically, send them as jpegs or tiffs. High-resolution photos work best and are much appreciated.

Overall, remember that the more information you provide, the better the obituary will be. The media may not use all of what you offer, but will more likely agree to write something if you make it easy for them to do.

If the media decides not to write a news obit or relegates it to a few paragraphs, you often have another option.

Many outlets will accept paid obituaries.

Granted, you have to pay for the space – most papers consider it advertising – but you can literally say whatever you want and not have to worry about the confines of traditional journalism. It’s a good option if money isn’t an object.



Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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