EEC Perspectives

Look Inward, Utility Communicators, to Prevent Your Next PR Crisis

Credit: Time magazine

Credit: Time magazine

Aaron Sorkin is an acquired taste. I get that. But whether you like your Hollywood honchos to be red-meat Republicans, like Clint Eastwood, or dyed in the (blue) wool Democrats like Sorkin, you can’t help but admire Sorkin’s rare talent. “A Few Good Men,” starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, was his first paying gig as a screenwriter. He followed that by writing “The American President,” a movie starring Michael Douglas, and “The West Wing,” a TV drama starring Martin Sheen.

More recently, he was the wordsmith behind the movies “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” and “Steve Jobs.” Sorkin has his quirks, and he doesn’t always hit home runs, but when he swings for the fences — and connects — the ball can leave the park in a hurry.

Credit: http://tomandlorenzo.com/

Credit: http://tomandlorenzo.com/

I’m riffing on Sorkin because I recently binge-watched “The Newsroom,” a TV drama that was one of his towering, no-doubt moonshots. Throughout the series’ three-year run, there was a lot of food for thought for those in the media or communications business. Jane Fonda played the chief executive of a media company which owned a cable TV network around which the series was built. Her character had a particularly telling bit of crisis-communications wisdom in the series’ final episode. After listening to another TV executive complain about how his image is taking a beating in the press, she retorted, “You’ve got a PR problem because you have a real problem.” In other words, before you blame the media for your PR problem, consider the possibility that you have an actual problem.

In some ways it’s sad that we need a writer as talented as Aaron Sorkin to remind us there is a difference between reality and perception, substance and spin. In today’s optics-obsessed culture, when images can be manipulated and facts often seem negotiable, it was worth being reminded — albeit in a fictional TV drama — that PR problems more often than not stem from real problems. Bad acts create PR problems.

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In the Court of Public Opinion, Utilities Lose by Playing Defense

 

law and order logo

Courtesy: NBC

Different people celebrate the 4th of July in different ways. Beyond the fireworks, baseball and ritual grilling of meat, I like to celebrate our nation’s independence by binge-watching my favorite TV show, “Law & Order,” the long-running police procedural drama.

 

Courtesy: NBC

Courtesy: NBC

The original show ran for 20 years and had several spin-offs. Regrettably, the original and most of its spinoffs have ended. My father was a police officer, so that could account for some of the series’ appeal. For me, Lenny Briscoe, the sardonic New York homicide detective played by Jerry Orbach, made the show worth watching. His wisecracks at crime scenes closed out the first block of every show for a dozen years.

 

Credit: iStock

Credit: iStock

But given my work in utility communications and marketing, I think the show’s frequent reference to the “court of public opinion” is what really resonates with me now. Whether invoked by the police, prosecution or the defense, nary an episode of “Law & Order” went by without some character asking how something would play among the public. Most of the concern about public perceptions took place well before social media grew into the dominant force it is today. Winning in the court of public opinion involved one distinct set of challenges; winning in a court of law a very different set. Very different sets of rules governed each, and, of course, disparate outcomes awaited the loser in each court.

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Awkward Conversations Utility Communicators Need to Have with Customers

Credit: The Odyssey Online

Credit: The Odyssey Online

Many of us would prefer to avoid awkward conversations if we can. We turn evasive when our children ask us, “Where do babies come from?” At a party, someone asks about the presidential candidates and most people go into full-on fudge mode. Stalling, evading and dissembling are seen as preferable to having a conversation that makes us uncomfortable.

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, holds valuable communications lessons for electric and gas utilities. Typically, utility executives are reluctant to discuss with customers the need to invest in infrastructure, because that brings on the discussion of price increases. It’s awkward, it’s negative, it’s a sleeping dog we should let lie.

No, we shouldn’t. The water crisis in Flint is what happens when a utility doesn’t maintain its infrastructure. And there is mounting evidence the water infrastructure crisis is a national one that spreads well beyond Flint.

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Leave aside all the political finger-pointing, of which there is plenty. Forget partisan politics if you can. Overlook the special conditions, such as the city of Flint being in receivership. Ignore claims of racism. At its core, the Flint water crisis is a story of a utility placing its customers at risk because it didn’t do its most basic job: maintain its infrastructure.

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