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The Op-Ed Page and Your Utility

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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
  • 1,042 items added with 541,806 views
  • Jan 19, 2023

One of the biggest challenges I face in producing a weekly newspaper is sourcing op-eds – those opinion pieces written by someone outside my company’s employ.

Aside from two house-written editorials, I’m mandated to come up with four op-eds each week. It isn’t easy.

My main source of op-eds is two small wire services we pay to use. One of those services provides pretty good material but only infrequently. The other produces plenty of content, but most of it is mediocre at best, is repetitive and is slanted toward one end of the political spectrum.

My other source, which typically can produce better, local content, is from community members and/or readers who want to contribute something to the paper. One pitfall is that some of these would-be contributors don’t really know how to write an op-ed, they make promises (such as turning something in by our deadlines) that they don’t keep or they don’t follow parameters (such as turning in 2,500 words when the limit is 800).

And, sadly, I don’t get nearly enough people even suggesting a submission.

This is where your utility comes into the picture: Fill the void at your local outlet.

Media outlets are always looking for good opinion content, so writing op-eds is a great way to focus on what’s important to your utility.

Just think: Rather than getting a quote or two in a news story, you can make your case – unfiltered and unchallenged -- in as many as 1,000 words.

That should be a gold mine, considering the pressures utilities are under these days.

Although the deluge of rain California has endured recently may tamp down wildfire issues there somewhat, utilities are still being blamed for having equipment that starts the fires.

In an op-ed, you can defend yourself and also point out that so-called solutions such as burying the equipment would be cost-prohibitive and cause bills to go way up. Considering inflation’s rampant impact these days, consumers won’t want to pay more.

Or maybe your utility is asking for a rate hike, which is never going to be met favorably – who wants to pay more? With an op-ed, you can explain why the costs are changing, especially if you’re taking efforts to go green (which usually costs more).

And maybe you’ve been socked with widespread weather-related outages that have irritated your customer base. In an op-ed, you can explain how the repair process works and what you’re doing to improve response time.

A media outlet will likely want an op-ed “written” by an executive at your utility. And perhaps you have an executive willing to write one, but in all probability, you’ll want your PR staff to ghostwrite it.

For one thing, plenty of smart people are bad writers. Executives compound the problem because they tend to be too promotional and use too much industry jargon that the audience won’t understand.

But executives will have to play a part in the process since they’ll have to approve the topic and the final draft sent to the media.

Remember that media outlets want material that’s informational and possibly interesting to a chunk of its audience. Anything promotional will be rejected: An op-ed is not a free advertisement.

General news outlets will likely prefer consumer-oriented topics such as ways to save money or how the utility is being increasingly environmentally friendly. But you can certainly defend yourself if you’re being attacked for any reason.

As for industry publications, they may give you more leeway to promote your effort – within reason.

Now let’s talk about the actual writing.

Once you’ve secured a spot in a media outlet, and well in advance of deadlines, have a 15-minute discussion with the executive who will get the op-ed’s byline.

Pick an overall theme, then develop four to six talking points that will be the bulk of your work. Don’t try to cram in too many points. Sticking with a few basic points and explaining them well will almost always work better.

Follow basic journalistic style. Look at how other op-eds in the publication are structured, and follow that style if you’re unsure of how to write.

An op-ed does follow a basic structure. After an introduction of a couple of paragraphs, elaborate on the main points, add a concluding summary and, if appropriate, a call to action. Always write with authority, but try not to sound condescending.

Keep your paragraphs short, and vary sentence length to make your work flow better. One to two sentences per paragraph is ideal.

Avoid jargon at all costs.

Once the draft is complete, share it with the executive. You’ll likely have to make changes; if the executive wants you to make changes that don’t fit with what I’ve described, push back when you can. Ultimately, though, the boss is always right, so make changes as requested.

This may require a couple of rounds of edits with the executive but, hopefully, you won’t be micromanaged too much. Once you have approval, send it and a high-resolution jpeg headshot of the executive to the publication.

However, the editor may want changes, too, requiring additional conversations with the executive and some tweaking before publication. This back-and-forth is normal.


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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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