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Ways for Your Utility to Control its Media Message

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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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  • Aug 16, 2021

Ways for Your Utility to Totally Control its Media Message

How often has the promise of a front-page newspaper story or a prominent segment on a television news program disappointed your utility?

Perhaps your utility was only a small part of the TV news segment (which was only 90 to 120 seconds long in the first place), and you ended up with the reporter saying a couple of lines about you, then featuring a three-second quote from a utility official.

Or maybe a newspaper reporter spent a half-hour interviewing your CEO about a topic important to the utility, only to find that information buried at the bottom of the story that mostly focused on something else.

It happens all the time: The media uses a small fraction of the information it collects. That’s just the nature of the business.

But there are venues where you can go into much greater depth, all while exerting much greater control over the message. The idea is to come across as a thought leader on key topics.

In newspapers, the opinion page can be your friend. And community news programs (yes, the ones that air at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays) offer valuable airtime on both television and radio. The same also is true of website podcasts.

Let’s start with newspapers.

As someone whose day job duties include procuring op-eds for publication, I can assure you that quality op-eds are always in demand. If you’re able to make a coherent argument for a topic of public interest in 800 words or so – and turn it in on time – you’re way ahead of the game.

Op-eds should be on a topic that is of interest to the readership of whatever publication you’re targeting. A general interest newspaper will be interested in consumer-related subjects.

For example, given the seemingly increasing number of wildfires – and questions as to whether utility equipment sparked them – a piece exploring the pros (reduced wildfires, better visuals) and cons (high cost, lengthy time to accomplish) of burying utility wires would seem like a natural.

So would a discussion of the end of pandemic-related payment moratoriums and storm damage response, to name some possibilities.

Assuming the editorial editor is on board with you writing an op-ed on a given topic, make sure to write plainly. Your audience most likely won’t understand utility jargon or complicated terms. Explain concepts carefully and clearly.

Write with confidence. You are the expert on the subject, so write with authority without sounding high and mighty. Don’t talk down to the audience and don’t spend your time congratulating the utility.

Include, if you can, real-life examples that illustrate your points. Make the topic relatable.

Use a few numbers, which always sound impressive. Don’t include too many or it waters down their impact.

Discuss the pros and cons of any issue, minimizing the things that work against your overriding theme, while highlighting what backs your argument. Stick to a handful of main points. If you try to include too many topics, you run the risk of diluting the main message. Keep to what is truly important.

Use short sentences and paragraphs – a paragraph can be as short as a sentence or two, especially if you’re keeping to one main point per paragraph.

Use the active voice where possible.

If you have a good graphic, whether it’s an illustration or a photo, submit it with the op-ed. A picture really can say a thousand words.

End your op-ed with a conclusion and a call to action.

As for getting on a television or radio program, things are a little different. You won’t have as much control because a host will be asking questions.

That said, the host is not likely to be an expert on the subject, so you should have the upper hand in steering the conversation. In any case, preparation is the key to good results. Come into the interview with responses to likely questions already in your mind.

There’s also an art to appearing on television and, to a lesser extent, on the radio. I’ve covered this ground before, so here’s a link to a recent post I wrote on this very topic for Energy Central:

While community news programs might not seem all that exciting or have a big audience – and op-eds don’t always draw readers – that’s OK.

It’s up to you to repurpose the material. You can do that by posting links to the material on your social media. You also should post the material on your website, so there’s a more permanent host for it. Newspaper, TV and radio websites post tons of content, so there’s always a risk your piece gets deleted or just difficult to find. That shouldn’t happen on your own website.

You can also promote any published op-eds via bill inserts or emails, if you send them to customers. Put the information directly into your customers’ hands.

Op-eds and community programming aren’t an end-all in terms of positive public relations, but it’s a useful, often-overlooked avenue worth exploring.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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