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If Your Utility is Considering Outside Public Relations Counsel …

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...

  • Member since 2016
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  • May 7, 2018 2:00 am GMT

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2018-05 - Customer Care, click here for more

It’s probably safe to say that even the smallest utility has some sort of in-house public relations department (or at least a couple people who have PR included in their job description).

But what about those utilities large enough that they not only have their own PR department, but they also are considering hiring outside counsel for help?

Sometimes, a utility is big enough to warrant the extra help. And sometimes there are temporary circumstances that make hiring outside help worthwhile. Those times might include the need to promote an extraordinary project or it may be a time when help is needed to manage crisis communications.

So, what should you look for in a PR firm?

The most important thing is to find a firm with experience working with utilities – or at least similar kinds of businesses. Some PR firms do specialize, so you wouldn’t want, for example, a company that primarily works with retail clients.

A PR firm with utility experience will get up to speed quicker and may also already possess relevant media contacts.

Of course, you’ll have to do your share of due diligence, so get a client list of your top choice and call its clients, both past and present, to get insight into their experiences.

Next, find out who will be working on your account on a day-to-day basis. That slick-talking company vice president may speak a good game and claim to oversee the account team working for you but, in reality, that may mean little.

Many PR firms, especially larger ones, are staffed with recent college graduates who do much of the heavy lifting on each account. That’s good and bad. The good is that they’ll be energetic and up-to-date on social media, but they also will be inexperienced and it’s safe to say that most college communications majors weren’t dying to work with utilities.

Ask for a weekly hourly breakdown of who’s doing what on your account.

Also know PR job title lingo. The “account coordinators,” “senior account coordinators,” “account managers” and “senior account managers” are all low-level position. It’s only when you get to “account supervisors” that you’re getting experienced staffers – and they may not have reached their 30th birthday yet, either.

Speaking of PR firm employees, find out how long your team members have been there. PR firms are notorious for hiring and firing people on a regular basis depending upon the clients they gain and lose. You want a firm that has a degree of stability.


Finally, how will the PR firm account for the hours spent working on your account? Some document time spent by each person down to the quarter hour. Others have no limit on the time spent, which sounds good but can be misleading.

Those firms may claim they’ll spend as much time as necessary on your account, but your version of necessary time may differ from theirs. It also leaves you vulnerable for time reductions when they need to focus on their other clients.

And that’s not to say the more-rigid bookkeeping is better. It’s easier to pad a bill that way

Consider the weekly 30-minute call you may have with your PR firm. If their entire team is listening in, they’ll all bill you. In other words, that simple call could essentially cost you $1,000.

Once you do choose an outside firm, take one important thing into consideration: Follow their advice. That’s what you’re paying them for.

Sure, you may realize fairly quickly, the firm is a bad fit – and you should fire them ASAP – but if you get a good vibe, let them do their thing. You’d be surprised at how many companies completely ignore their PR counsel. Don’t be one of them.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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