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The State of Utility Public Relations Mid 2020

image credit: ID 96632562 © Convisum | Dreamstime.com

When historians look back on 2020, they certainly won’t be bored – even if large swaths of the population are dealing with cabin fever at this very moment.

Say what you will, but between the biggest pandemic in 100 years and significant social unrest, 2020’s hardly been boring from a news perspective.

What does this mean for your utility from a news and public relations point of view?

Like a lot of things these days, the answer is unclear. We’re all in unchartered territory, so the answers are literally being written as you read this – and in the days and weeks ahead.

In some regards, things ultimately will be unchanged. Your utility will have information and opinions that it will need to disseminate. And the outlets that might use that information (TV, print publications, radio, the internet, social media) will still be there in some form or fashion. The same methods you used in the past will remain effective to varying degrees in the future.

That said, things will be extra-touchy and difficult for the foreseeable future.

At all costs, avoid weighing in on the social unrest caused by racial issues – no matter how just you think causes might be. There’s little to be gained by making statements of support because even your most carefully worded remarks could be parsed and taken the wrong way. And issuing some bland statement of support doesn’t really advance the issue anyway

Things change a bit if you’re pressed for comment and thus put on the spot, but your remarks should be as generic as possible (the aforementioned bland statement). Thankfully, activists aren’t likely to seek out what utilities think on social topics – out of sight, out of mind – but it is possible your employees might press you to say something.

As for the pandemic, utilities are in a bit of ticklish position, especially when it comes to programs that have suspended service turnoffs for nonpayment or enabled delayed payments for out-of-work customers. Obviously, those programs can’t continue indefinitely, so choosing how and when to discontinue them (and dealing with any backlash) requires a deft hand that combines practicality and sympathy.

Government response at all levels to the pandemic is increasingly being questioned, so steer clear of any disputes you can, while still representing yourself when it comes to potential regulation.

Otherwise, as the country slowly begins to open up, so, too, can your public relations efforts. By this point, there’s surely some coronavirus fatigue on the news, so if you can provide something fresh or different, go for it. Given that we’re in the slowest months for news, you might find yourself landing coverage that you otherwise wouldn’t receive.

So, what kinds of things should you pitch?

Evergreen stories are fine: You can always drag out your pitches about ways to save energy when the temperatures are soaring or warnings about calling before digging or taking care with tree and shrub trimming when power lines are nearby. You can also talk about measures you’re taking to prevent power outages, such as your own tree-trimming measures around those power lines.

Now’s also a good time to pitch stories about interesting employees; they may end more about the employee than the utility, but even a mention is useful and it helps build morale.

Always looks for the unusual – the burly lineman who is a champion ballroom dancer in his spare time or the seemingly meek secretary who competes in roller derby during her weekends or the guy who started as a janitor at the utility 35 years ago and is now your chief operating officer.

Remember that “dog bites man” isn’t news, but “man bites dog” is.

In addition, promote your C-level executives. Has the local daily newspaper or the weekly business paper profiled your CEO recently (or ever)? Do any of the other C-level executives merit a profile for interesting personal histories or unique accomplishments? Do any of your execs have leisure-time hobbies that might interest a niche publication: Maybe your CFO is a philatelist who owns a copy of the rare and invaluable “Inverted Jenny” stamp from 1918 or perhaps your chief technology officer collects old computers and is the proud owner of an Altair 8800.

Then there’s the regular news your company will generate. Promote it like you always do, being mindful of deadlines, providing plenty of images and being as accommodating as possible with the news media to curry favor. The same is true with breaking news, especially anything weather-related.

As far as events go, you probably won’t have anything for quite a while. Promoting the occasional virtual event is fine, but that topic is kind of played out – the “first time XXXXX ever occurred virtually” has been done to death. Unless it’s really unique, journalists aren’t going to bother.

Finally, use any down time you have to take stock of where you are.

Consider whether you need to revamp your staffing. Update your media lists. Touch base with key contacts just to say hello. Plan for a post-pandemic world that may return to “normal,” but will likely feature a more consolidated and bare-bones news media. A lot of journalists that have been furloughed or laid off will never find jobs again.

That’s unfortunate, but it may provide some opportunity for you. Harried editors and reporters will be scrambling for content and might be more willing to accept content for you.

Always remember that opportunity exists sometimes in the places where you’d least expect it. Clearly, a pandemic and social unrest are not ideal at the moment (even if the latter ultimately produces positive change), but the world is changing, so it’s best to be prepared to thrive in a new environment.

Andy Gotlieb's picture

Thank Andy for the Post!

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