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Return to Normal Times Merits a Revised PR Approach for Your Utility

image credit: ID 131140526 © Tero Vesalainen |
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
  • 1,004 items added with 507,827 views
  • Jun 16, 2021

Now that things seemingly are returning to normal, your utility should consider the general approach it’s taking toward public relations.

In all likelihood, your utility was laying low, so to speak, as information about COVID-19 dominated the news for the past 16 months or so, and most businesses hunkered down to weather the storm. That was a fine strategy. Note that the operative word there is “was.”

Things change, and it’s important now for your utility to be proactive. While the media landscape has changed permanently since March 2020 – fewer overall outlets and more sparsely populated newsrooms in the surviving places – the basic drill is the same.

If you don’t get your voice out there, you run the risk of someone else speaking for you. Considering that utilities are facing a lot of criticism these days, you can’t allow that to happen.

With bill repayment deferrals ending, you need to be out there explaining how customers can repay their debts and describing what new programs you might be putting into place.

Since it’s wildfire season, you need to be prepared to answer complaints that may arise if it’s believed your equipment is sparking them.

Since hurricane season’s prime months are coming up, there may be massive outages to prepare for in states such as Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

With prices going up, are there rate increases on the horizon to defend?

Evergreen issues, such as tree trimming and equipment replacement, probably need mentioning, too.

Publicly owned companies have their own set of requirements to follow as well.

So your utility has a lot to do – and I haven’t even mentioned the day-to-day publicity needed for things such as prominent new hires and events you’re conducting or sponsoring.

While the media landscape has permanently changed somewhat, as has the world, the basics of public relations haven’t changed.

It behooves you to update your existing media lists, as former contacts may no longer be at your preferred outlets, or they might have different, no longer relevant positions. If you have interns this summer, having them update media lists is a perfect task.

Remember to make it easy for the media. That means providing plenty of materials, especially visual ones, and doing so in a timely manner. Yes, things sometimes happen unexpectedly, but any advance planning is much appreciated. And if you’re planning events, consider holding them at 10-11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 7 p.m., as these tend to be times when news crews are available.

Think outside the box when it comes to pitching. Consider media outlets that you normally might not otherwise, especially for feature pitches. For example, if your CFO owns a T206 Honus Wagner as part of a huge baseball card collection, a lifestyles publication might be interested. Remember that positive publicity is positive publicity, even if it doesn’t further the utility’s messaging directly.

Being aggressive with your public relations efforts is fine, but don’t be the “boy who cried wolf.” If you get the reputation for pitching too often, the media will start to ignore you – even when you might have something newsworthy. In other words, choose your spots.

Diversify the outlets you reach out to for coverage. Obviously, getting on the 6 p.m. news or on the front page of the local daily should remain a goal, but there are tons more outlets than that these days.

Radio frequently is overlooked, and there typically are multiple weekly newspapers and lifestyles publications in need of content. Even some popular, reputable bloggers can be targeted. It’s often easier to get placements in those outlets, and you can make up for the fewer ears and eyes seeing it by promoting any hits on your utility’s web site and social media outlets.

Also consider reaching out to the editorial pages of the local newspapers and the public affairs programs on local television stations. Good content is in short demand, and you have a better chance of getting more of your message out there, especially on controversial or complex matters.

Sure, it’s nice for the company CEO to be interviewed for 10 seconds as part of a two-minute TV clip or to get quoted a couple times in a larger newspaper story. But it can be more effective to write an 800-word column on a topic of your choosing or be the primary guest on a 30-minute public affairs show. Again, fewer may be watching it or reading it initially, but if you have a strong social media program, you can promote it.

I’ve mentioned social media already, but can’t overemphasize how effective it can be in promoting your utility. Yes, much of the social media world is filled with insipid blather. And yes, the world probably isn’t beating down the door to your utility’s social media when lots of people would rather hear model Chrissy Teigen put her foot in her mouth again or listen to some 16-year-old opine on politics. But social media is the perfect vehicle for controlling your message in a friendly environment.

In general, public relations isn’t all that complicated, but there are plenty of ways to screw it up if you’re not careful. A carefully considered program should alleviate the potential for problems.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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