EEC Perspectives

The Simple, Enduring Truths of Crisis Communications

Credit: JFKLibrary.org

Listening to Bruce Hennes’ talks on crisis communications for utilities, I was reminded of a long-ago quip attributed, as best as I could recall, to Pierre Salinger (right), former press secretary to President John F. Kennedy and a print and broadcast reporter.

“The truth can be complicated,” I remember reading him saying. “Sometimes, it’s easier to lie.” He was reflecting, many years after the fact, about his work as the White House press secretary when confronted with questions about JFK’s health, the president’s extra-marital affairs and the Cuban missile crisis.

Salinger died long ago, but the sentiment animating his wisecrack apparently is alive and well, judging from the recent lie-driven scandals that have engulfed prominent individuals like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, among others, as well as organizations like Uber, Fox News, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo.

Utilities also have had their share of scandals and crises, probably no more and no less than other businesses, but the localized nature of utilities typically keeps those scandals from going national. One exception is the natural gas pipeline explosion that rocked San Bruno, California, a few years back, and the subsequent assertions that Pacific Gas & Electric scrimped on safety in order to hit its earnings numbers.

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You Wanna Be Right, or Understood, in Your Utility Customer Communications?

I spoke with a utility communicator not too long ago who was having difficulty convincing the highly technical leader of her utility to use easily understood language in communicating with the public. The leader was a stickler for precision and comprehensiveness, which led to long and complicated communications with customers, which the communicator suspected were almost never read.

She probably was right. I sympathized and said the answer was simple: “أنا صحفي من أمريكا.”

She said, “Excuse me?”

I repeated my recommendation, with added emphasis: “أنا صحفي من أمريكا.”

When she looked at me blankly and said she didn’t understand, I said I was not surprised. I was speaking Arabic, which probably had the same effect on her as the general manager’s communications were having on the utility’s customers.

Utility Customer Communications: Use Words Customers Understand

Her boss was speaking “engineering,” probably because it was the language he knew and felt most comfortable. But my choice to speak in Arabic was to make a point about the futility of speaking to customers in a language they don’t understand.

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Is Your Utility Brand Trustworthy?

 

An old quote — “the more things change, the more they remain the same” — came to mind as I exited yet another conference on the strategic challenges reshaping the utility industry.

One much-discussed challenge was the changeover of the generation fleet, from coal to gas and renewables. That one’s way above most of our pay grades.

Something that’s a lot closer to our sphere of influence, though, is customer behavior. The separate but related challenges of rooftop solar, battery storage, net metering and learning thermostats all point to flat or negative load growth in the near term and potentially significant changes in the utility-customer relationship over the long term.

A Utility Brand is a Bundle of Attributes

But like the start of retail competition more than two decades ago, the current challenges can be managed effectively if an electric utility or electric cooperative has a brand that is trusted by its customers or members.

That’s as true today as it was two decades ago, when California, Texas and Pennsylvania began introducing retail electric competition. If you don’t give your customers a reason to investigate alternatives, most of them won’t. If you do, more of them will.

Customer trust also can shorten the time it takes a utility to recover from a crisis, a scandal or a shortfall.

Marketing professionals define a utility’s brand as a bundle of attributes that are meaningful to its target audience. Years ago, in a report written for E source, I interviewed a utility executive who was a little fuzzy about his company’s brand. First he confused branding with advertising, and then he said, “We just changed our logo. Isn’t that the same thing?” I expect we all have come a long way since then.

Market Strategies International (MSI) has been measuring the trustworthiness of utility brands for several years. Earlier this year it released Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential, a syndicated Cogent Reports™ study. The study looked at three areas — service satisfaction, product experience and brand trust — that roll up to the firm’s proprietary metric: Engaged Customer Relationship.

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