EEC Perspectives

Effective and SUCCESful Messaging for Utilities

Credit: Random House Publishing

Our challenge as utility communicators comes down to two separate yet interconnected things: Messaging and Messenger. That’s the Alpha and Omega of communicHoations. You need to craft a message your audience can grasp and you need to deliver it cost effectively. A great message can be undermined by a bad message-delivery choice. And even the best means of delivering a message won’t work if the message being delivered is weak. If you are inclined to sports metaphors, think of messaging and messenger as hitting and pitching, or offense and defense. Teams need both to win games.

Longtime readers know I am a fan of Made to Stick, a clear and powerful guide to creating messages that stay with a reader. Powerful messages follow a formula. According to authors Chip and Dan Heath, powerful messages are:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Those tips create the acronym SUCCES. To start you on your own path to SUCCESful messaging, here are some of my favorite messages along with a brief explanation of the message and what makes it powerful.

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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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