EEC Perspectives

What if Plato was Your Energy Communications Consultant?

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

“Thought leadership” is a term you hear a lot these days. I’ve penned a few “thought leadership” pieces over the years. But today, I thought I’d go back and ask, only slightly tongue in cheek, what recommendations Plato (left) and Aristotle might make if they were your energy communications consultant.

I think you’ll find their words of wisdom, spoken over 2,000 years ago, remain highly applicable today.

Though I’m sure I didn’t feel this way at the time, I was fortunate to read Plato as a college student. The Greek philosopher explored (among other things) rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. What Plato called a rhetorician would today be called a communications consultant or advertising agency creative director.

Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was put to death by the leader of Athens. He was accused of being a rhetorician. His accusers said Socrates made weak arguments seem strong, and strong arguments seem weak. Then and now, a skilled user of rhetoric could be a serious threat to the established order.

Athenian leaders didn’t target mathematicians or natural scientists, people who calculated spatial relationships or documented observable facts. Instead, they executed a wordsmith because he had the power to persuade.

That’s a little scary if you’re a wordsmith like me. While a character in Shakespeare advocated killing all the lawyers, it looks like Athenian authorities wanted to off all the ancient world’s speechwriters, messaging gurus, advertising folks and image-makers because they had the power to convince people that black was white, up was down, truth was falsehood and beauty was ugly.

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Utilities, Do More Face-to-Face Public Engagement!

I’m not much for poetry — I know, my loss — but one poem that did make a lasting impression on me was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which I learned in Mr. Gagliardi’s 7th grade English class at St. Theresa’s School in Briarcliff Manor, New York. The poem ended this way:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Looking back, that poem helped awaken a character trait of going against the grain. Lots of people root for the underdog or cheer for the Cinderella team. But I went beyond that. I stopped listening to certain musical groups when they became too popular. I often don’t go to movies (such as animated flicks) that are wildly popular. And I delight in exploring the less-traveled path.

Over the last year, I have learned that some energy companies are exploring a less-well-traveled path when it comes to public engagement. Our just-released market research report, Juggling Chainsaws: 2017 Survey of Utility Communicators and Marketers, shows that many utilities are investing more and more of their money, effort and faith in using digital tools like social media, video, chat and text, to connect with customers.

Credit: iStock

But a few utilities are taking the less-well-traveled path: while they are becoming more digital, they also are cultivating something pre-digital, even pre-historic: direct, face-to-face (F2F) public engagement.

You remember F2F, right? That’s when one person actually spoke directly to another, face-to-face, without electronic intermediaries. So 20th century, right? Nope. And because it is effective as well as cost effective, some utilities are starting to pay attention.

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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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