EEC Perspectives

Utility Communications: Don’t Play Word Games on Price Increases

“You say ‘po-TA-to,’ I say ‘po TAH-to.’ You say ‘to-MA-to,’ I say ‘to-MAH-to.’ ”

That’s the kind of word game more and more utilities are playing these days. It’s a game I expect most will lose, mainly because utilities and their customers are not using a common vocabulary.

Changes in prices — mainly increases but sometimes decreases — will be one of the biggest utility communications challenges this year, according to EEC’s soon-to-be-released Juggling Chainsaws: 2017 Survey of Utility Communicators and Marketers.

On the primacy of price-related communications, the 2017 survey results mirror the results of the 2015 EEC survey, Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases. Given the large investments utilities are making in infrastructure, environmental cleanup and other matters, we expect this trend will continue for the next several years.

Four Tips for Communicating Prices (Not Rates)

When I write, speak or consult on utility communications, specifically pricing communications, I strongly recommend:

1. Use the word, “prices,” not “rates,” to describe the cost of electricity or gas.

2. Don’t get caught up in the specific price per kilowatt-hour or therm, which few people really understand.

3. Clearly state the dollars and cents impact of a price change to the monthly bill.

4. Include messaging about how customers could offset some or all of the per-unit price increase. For example, “The price of electricity is going up 5% in 2017, about $6.00 per month for the average residential customer, but customers can reduce or offset the impact to their bill by enrolling in one or more of our energy-efficiency programs.”

It’s been a hard slog convincing utilities to use a customer-friendly term like “prices” instead of “rates.” At least one public power general manager is all too personally aware of the dangers of using the wrong word in the wrong setting. We detail his unfortunate missteps below.

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Utility Communicators: Where Were You the Day the News Died?

Credit: Amazon.com

Where were you the day the music died? For those of us of a certain vintage, we may recall Don McLean’s song about that awful day when a plane crash killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper. McLean felt rock & roll would never be the same after that tragic loss of life, and he wrote an eight and one-half minute eulogy for it, titled “American Pie” (not to be confused with the movies of that name). Listening to an AM-radio shortened version of that song when I was growing up, I didn’t understand the allusions, but I liked the beat. Listening to it today, I still like the beat, but now I get most of the allusions.

So where were you the day the news died? If music can die, as people and animals and ideas and countries certainly do, why can’t news?

And if it’s not too late, what can be done to revive news’ heart, reinvigorate its soul and postpone its death? Or are we already too late?

 

Credit: iStock

I had those troubling thoughts recently after a utility spokesperson contacted me to point out several errors in an article I wrote for one of my journalism clients. I felt awful about my inaccuracies and I worked with the client to fix them as soon as possible.

My errors did not spring from malicious intent. I strive for accuracy in all my work, as I assume nearly all communicators do. Still, despite our best efforts, mistakes happen. Fortunately, my recent ones were easily corrected.

But as I recently listened to “American Pie” and I considered the errors in my article, I thought about the state of journalism in general, specifically what has been called “fake news,” and what it may mean to electric, gas and water providers.

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Warmest Holiday Wishes from EEC

 

girl-opening-present-compressor

Credit: iStock

Christmas is only a few weeks away. It’s always a special time in our home. I’ll never forget the Christmas Day years ago when our son Jack, then about age 6, bolted down the stairs and hurled himself at the presents under the tree. His expression was a mix of excitement (“Wow, there’s a ton of presents, I wonder how much of it is mine?”) and worry (“Please, no socks”).

 

fruitcakeHere at EEC, we honor the spirit of Christmas. But instead of lavishing our readers with gift cards, holiday sweaters or PlayStation 4s, we have chosen a humbler approach. This month, we’re regifting some of our most popular blog posts and Subscriber Exclusives of 2016. So take a break from shoveling snow, grab an eggnog, throw another log on the fire and take a look at what your peers at other utilities have been reading. It could make your life easier in 2017!

 

boulder-energy-future-compressor

Credit: City of Boulder

How Boulder is Redefining “Success”: The City of Boulder, Colorado, located 10 miles west of EEC, has been trying to leave Xcel Energy and launch its own distribution utility for many years. Within the electric industry, Boulder’s municipalization efforts have been widely followed, mainly because successful municipalizations are rare. Despite a wealth of talent and drive, Boulder has been losing more than it is winning at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and in the courts over the last year or so. With each new setback, the city has been redefining “success.” In other words, Boulder’s moving the goalposts. I’m beginning to wonder if the law, and Xcel’s deeper pockets, are starting to wear the city down. Although I still think Boulder could pull victory from the jaws of defeat, I don’t think that will happen. Click here if you missed this Subscriber Exclusive.

Communications Tip of the Month: The changes roiling the electric and gas businesses are forcing communicators to find new ways to create value for their companies. Resistance is futile but pain is optional. Find out what’s working and what’s not from your peers.

How a New Narrative Can Overcome Confirmation Bias: Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said or what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Confirmation bias is people’s tendency to remember facts (or even rumors) that confirm their existing viewpoint. Many customers don’t think particularly highly of their utilities, which blinds them to the good and innovative things many utilities are doing. But a new narrative can overcome confirmation bias, providing utilities follow a few simple rules. You can read all about it by clicking here for a copy of this Subscriber Exclusive.

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