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When Someone Challenges Your Utility, Fight Back

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Managing Editor of a specialty publication, former public relations practitioner Freelancer

I hold 33 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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  • Nov 8, 2021
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“In these unsettled times” is an increasingly trite way to describe the world’s overall instability today, but it’s true that generally accepted rules are increasingly being thrown out of the window.

That even applies to utilities.

Over the years, electric utilities have mostly enjoyed a favorable public perception. As long as the lights came on every time someone flicked a switch, people were happy. And on those rare occasions when weather caused outages, the public knew utility employees were braving the elements at all hours to get the power flowing again.

In addition, utilities offered money-saving programs such as energy audits and rebates for old, inefficient appliances, while being good corporate citizens involved in the community.

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That favorable perception may be disappearing, and it’s certainly not a situation isolated to utilities. It seems as if everyone is unhappy with and skeptical of nearly every entity.

Among other things, utilities are now criticized for rate increases, the end of pandemic-related bill payment moratoriums, outages caused by increasingly severe weather, perceived grid instability and devastating wildfires that may or may not be sparked by utility equipment.

To make matters worse, nobody wants to hear that solutions for problems are complicated and likely expensive. Case in point: burying electrical wires.

In other words, no matter how good your performance or how solid your standing is in the community, you’re likely to be facing a lot more criticism.

That means utilities as a whole need to be much more proactive in responding to criticism – and there’s a fine line between the right way to do that and the wrong way.

Perhaps there’s an elected official who’s taken to social media to complain about a rate hike, your response to the most recent major event or someone else that might interest his/her constituents. Unless that official is known as a true loose cannon, it doesn’t matter if the arguments are reasonable and backed up by facts or are designed to enflame an already agitated group of constituents.

A response is mandated. Never let someone direct the course of dialogue on an issue important to you.

Simply tell your story, methodically going point-by-point to refute that official’s arguments. Sometimes you can even win by losing. If there’s a valid criticism, admit it. You might have to issue a mea culpa or you might have to explain why the problem exists, but you’ll likely get credit with your audience if you don’t reflexively deny everything.

When you do respond, always keep things civil and professional, respecting the opposing point of view, even if it’s plainly wrong. Don’t resort to denigration or name-calling, no matter how much they try to bait you with inflammatory language. Always take the high road.

In this case, an op-ed might be a good option, especially if the complaint is a recurring one. I’ve written before that an 800-word op-ed where you control the dialogue can be a lot more effective than a brief mention or two in a news story.

Your goal is to always to defend the utility, explaining your side of the story in an understandable fashion, while making it clear that there a lot of variables in play (some out of your control) and complicated processes that defy easy solutions.

In baseball, a tie goes to the runner and merely neutralizing the problem works here, too. You don’t have to “win” the argument, so long as the complaint loses steam.

Obviously, responses aren’t always going to be that simple, as there could be extenuating circumstances that prevent or limit your engagement. A prime example of that would be legal action; in that case, you’ll likely have to defer to the company attorneys.

And then there are the times when a response might not we warranted.

If someone who appears to be a crackpot starts a social media campaign, gets a letter or two published in the local paper or rambles on during a talk radio show about a relatively mundane issue, a public response might not be warranted. You likely shouldn’t ignore that person completely, so reaching out offline might appease the person. As always, be careful what you say. If there’s no satisfying them, they may resume the campaign, this time using your words against you.

Given the trends facing the world – an increasing lack of common courtesy and a win-all kind of mentality – your role as a utility’s public relations practitioner is only going to become more difficult. Meeting the challenge head-on with prompt responses will be your best bet, if only because the naysayers will find an easier target.

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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