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Take Care of the Small Stuff to Improve Your Utility’s PR Efforts

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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...

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  • Mar 2, 2023
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The day after the newspaper I edit is printed, I usually do a post-mortem, looking at what worked and what could have been better.

It’s also when I find tiny errors – things the great majority of readers won’t even notice. I’m talking about mistakes like improper spacing, a missing end note on a story and incorrect style (for example, the Associated Press says to use “adviser” instead of “advisor”).

While these mistakes aren’t overly important, they do bother me and they led me to the theme for this post: Small stuff matters, even with your utility’s public relations program.

You might have a strong public relations program in place, along with intriguing story ideas, the financial wherewithal and well-coached subjects ready for interviews.

The problem is that you badly damage your prospects by making small, yet crucial errors that put your good intentions in jeopardy.

Here are a handful of examples that I come across on the job every week:

● Failing to respond promptly. If a reporter or editor calls you, call them back immediately, especially when a deadline is mentioned. You would think that’s PR 101, but many PR practitioners call back the next day and miss out; some are surprised when I tell them it’s too late.

● Bait and switch. Promising something and then not delivering it is incredibly common, and it is a way to guarantee diminished prospects for coverage. No matter what you promise (even if it’s an interview with the CEO, an exclusive story or just routine information on a mundane topic), you’d better do your best to deliver. Obviously, there are always extraordinary cases, such as your CEO’s spouse dropping dead unexpectedly, but there aren’t too many. If you ever fail to deliver, try to come up with some sort of make-up and also apologize extensively.

● Overuse of jargon. Every industry and/or organization has its own lingo that may seem second nature to you. But you can never assume a general news reporter or editor will know what you’re talking about, trade publications aside. Even then, keep your language direct and simple and direct, including when you’re talking about complicated technical subjects.

● Poor photos or video. Even organizations that employ professional photographers or videographers sometimes allow their images to be afterthoughts. Quite often, photographs provided are out of focus, poorly centered or cropped or are of low resolution and won’t reproduce well. Another problem is old photos; your CEO may be vain, but a 20-year-old picture looks ridiculous. Also avoid photos of people standing around in groups or cheesy standbys such as a bunch of people holding shovels at a groundbreaking, a big check presentation or a ribbon cutting. With video, the production is often nauseatingly promotional or tries to emulate something on MTV. Keep it level-headed.

● Bad photo captions. Clearly describe what is happening in the photo, and identify the people from left to right, including their titles. Don’t submit a photo with too many people in it because not everyone will be identified.

● Not paying attention to deadlines. This is different than the first bullet item, or perhaps it’s an addendum: You want to be among the first sources interviewed for any news story. If a local reporter is doing a story on area utilities, he/she will be talking to multiple sources. Say a local journalist is writing about all the area utilities (electric, gas, water, cable TV, public transit, telecom). In all probability, many of the comments will be similar. But the journalist begins crafting a story based on what he hears first – and may use more of your information.

● Being a pest. Sometimes no means no. If an outlet rejects your idea a second time, it’s time to move on. Don’t be the PR person who cried wolf.

● Playing favorites with the media. Of course, if The New York Times or Wall Street Journal comes calling to do a fawning profile of your utility, drop everything and help them any way you can. But if you play favorites with the local media, believe me, the less-favored outlets will know it. Sure, sometimes you may think one outlet is more favorable (or, conversely, less favorable), but in reality that doesn’t often happen. Journalists aren’t out to get you – or suck up to you, unless perhaps they’re seeking a job.

Always be on the lookout for ways to improve your PR efforts – I could go on for hours about PR people who sabotage themselves. By focusing on speed, clarity and accuracy, your chances for good results improve.

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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