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Should Your Utility Hire Outside Public Relations Counsel?

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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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  • Sep 13, 2021

No matter how small a utility is, it’s a pretty safe assumption that there’s some kind of public relations department. There at least is a person or two that have the role included in their job descriptions.

But utilities often hire outside firms for public relations.

Small utilities do so because their staff doesn’t have the bandwidth and/or expertise to properly handle it.

Large utilities hire outside PR counsel for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the extra help is needed, such as when there are temporary circumstances that can’t be covered by the existing staff. Or maybe there are extraordinary circumstances at play that warrant specialized help, such as a firm that tackles crisis communications.

That leads to an important question: What should you look for when hiring a PR firm? While there’s no set answer to the question, you can improve your chances of a good experience by taking a few things into consideration.

Perhaps the most important thing to do is to select a firm used to working with utilities or similar kinds of businesses. Many PR firms specialize and an outfit that primarily handles retail, restaurants or social service agencies, to name a few subsets, wouldn’t have the experience you want.

A PR firm that works with large clients like utilities is likely to get up to speed faster and probably already possesses the oh-so-important media contacts you need.

Obviously, you’ll need to do plenty of due diligence. Getting a client list from your top choice and checking in with some of those clients is a good first step in getting a feel for how the firm works. Better yet, do some internet sleuthing and find some former clients and speak with them. The fact that a company isn’t using your preferred choice at the moment isn’t necessarily a red flag – there are lots of reasons why PR customers drop off temporarily or permanently – but it could be.

Once you think you have picked out a firm, ask who will be working on your account on a daily basis – and ask for specific names. That smooth-talking executive with a glittering resume may be involved with your account, but that could involve little more than checking in occasionally.

A majority of PR firms, especially the bigger ones, are staffed with recent college graduates who will be doing most of the work. While they are likely to be energetic and current on the latest social media trends and whatnot, they’ll also be inexperienced and won’t understand how or what a utility does.

Definitely ask for a breakdown of how many hours each person assigned to your account will be devoting each week.

You should be aware of PR job titles, which can be misleading. “Account coordinators,” “senior account coordinators,” “account managers” and “senior account managers” are typically low-level positions. A “senior account manager” may be all of 24 years old. Granted, they’ve advanced, so they must be doing something right, but how much would you trust a 24-year-old?

The “account supervisor” (who may not be all that experienced, either) will play an important role in dealing with your utility. If you’re iffy about whoever that person is, that should give you pause.

It’s not a bad idea to ask how long your team members have been in place. PR firms regularly hire and fire people based on the clients they gain and lose. You want stability.

Next, how does the PR firm account for the hours it spends working on your account?

Many firms document time spent by each person based on the quarter-hour.

You may like that concept, but it’s also easier that way to pad a bill. Most firms will have a weekly call (often about 30 minutes) with each client to check in and update plans. But if the entire team is participating, they’ll all bill you. If your team has, say, five members, that basic call could cost a decent chunk of change.

Others don’t limit the amount of time spent, but which can be misleading (even if it sounds that good). That’s because those firms say they’ll spend as much time as needed on your account, but your thoughts on what’s necessary and what isn’t may vary from their thinking. And a lack of limits means you might be vulnerable to time reductions when their other clients have more pressing needs.

After you pick a firm, there’s something else that’s important to take into consideration. And that would be to follow their advice; after all, it is why you’re paying them.

Granted, you won’t like every idea and there will be a learning process, but especially if your in-house PR operations aren’t sophisticated you need to trust them.

Or at least trust them for a little while. Sometimes you realize fairly quickly that your chosen firm is a bad fit, so terminate the relationship as soon as you can; be sure there’s an “out” clause in your contract.

And don’t sweat the small stuff, which wastes your time and money.

A client of mine once had me write a two-page press release to announce the company landed a sponsorship on a fishing program. I dashed off the release that afternoon, but it took seven revisions (and this wasn’t exactly controversial stuff), each of which the company took about a week to process.

By the time the release was done, all the episodes in the fishing show’s new season had already aired! That certainly wasn’t a good use of time or money for anyone involved, especially on such a mundane issue.

Yes, you want to hire a good contractor, but try to be a good client, too.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
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