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Remember Your Key Utility Employees When They DIe

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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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  • May 25, 2022
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Death is big business in more ways than one.

Jessica Mitford proved that in 1963 when she published “An American Way of Death,” an often-scathing look at the funeral home industry.

And death continues to be a big deal.

I receive a Google Analytics report each week, as well as a monthly report, that shows the most-read stories on our website. Nearly every week, the death notices are the most-read section. In the last week, eight of the 10 most-read stories were either a death notice (paid) or an obituary (staff written). That’s a little extreme, but it’s not atypical.

What does this mean for your utility?

Well, when someone prominent at your utility dies (whether a current employee or a former one), you should suggest to your local media that they consider an obit.

Granted, you need to be selective when it comes to suggesting someone.

Good candidates include CEOs, presidents, board chairs and anyone else prominent in the community. If a rank-and-file employee is well-known locally for something outside the utility, they’re potentially a good candidate. And any unique employees are worth considering, too. That’s admittedly a little vague, but the employee with 16 children or the worker who won the lottery, but continued to toil as a janitor might draw interest.

Remember to only suggest people who worked for the utility for a significant time – or made a major contribution. The chief operating officer who worked for the utility for 14 months back in the 1970s then moved out of the area won’t move the needle.

Once you have chosen a candidate, you need to prepare information for the media. You probably should reach out on your own, but you likely will need to coordinate with the funeral home that is handling the details.

Deliver the information in a timely fashion, since nobody wants to read obits of people who died months ago. Include plenty of background materials on the person, focusing on his or her accomplishments. You may also include information about their childhood, their education, their professional life (both at your company and elsewhere), their family and the funeral details.

Many people write up their own obit and assume the media outlet will use it verbatim, but that’s not likely to happen. Your copy will be heavily written and not used in its entirety. Most reporters pick and choose what they’ll use.

When you write, try to keep a neutral tone. Yes, you want to stress why this person’s life was worth writing about, but don’t make them out to be saints. Jaded journalists have strong BS detectors and may be deterred if you lay it on too thick.

Also include a small selection of jpeg photographs of the deceased. Those should include a relatively recent photo, as well as photos from throughout their life. Identify the people in the photographs and give approximate dates as to when they were taken. Your key photo should depict the person as they’re best remembered. Think Elvis Presley 1959, not Elvis Presley 1974.

Present all materials directly to the media outlets, along with contact information for family or friends that can talk about the deceased. Be sure to vet those contacts; some people like to talk about their loved ones or friends and find the exercise cathartic. Others will be overcome with grief and not want to talk; respect their privacy if they decline.

Overwhelming grief tends to be more of an issue if the death was unexpected, such as when a person is young or dies in an accident. When a 94-year-old who’s been in declining health for years dies, people are expecting it and generally handle it better.

As always, the more information that you provide, the better, although there is a limit. The local press isn’t going to want to see the deceased’s Boy Scout uniform or a ribbon for placing third in the 1957 Johnson County trombone contest.

If the media does show interest in an obituary, be responsive to any requests you receive for more information. Who gets selected for an obituary is often a subjective thing, so if you prove difficult to work with, the media outlet may simply choose a more cooperative source. Time is always of the essence. When a reporter says they need something by 5 p.m., they mean it.

If and when an obituary is published, be sure to promote it on your website and social media, taking pains to reflect the solemn nature of the news.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
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