EEC Perspectives

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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Utility Communicators: Making Lemonade out of Lemons

Lemon juice in pitcher and glass with citrus squeezer and fresh lemon isolated on white

iStock Photo

When I talk to media relations representatives at utilities, I often hear how difficult their jobs have become. Newspapers have closed. Dailies have become twice-weeklies. The news hole is shrinking. Veteran reporters who used to cover the utility have taken a package. If those veterans are replaced (and their positions are not always back-filled), it typically is with a shiny new journalism-school graduate who covers cops (on Mondays), schools (on Tuesdays) and business — in whatever flavor — on Thursdays. The loss of institutional memory has made it harder to place favorable stories about the utility in any media outlet.

For media relations practitioners, the print media outlook certainly is grim. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to place a story, especially if it requires more than five column-inches and does not include a photo of linemen rescuing kittens from power poles.

And yes, the outlook is even grimmer in the broadcast media, with their breathless coverage of car accidents, severe weather, high-school sports and miraculous recoveries from tragic illnesses. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been the mantra for TV news for the 30 years I have been in the utility communications game. That, too, shows no sign of changing any time soon.

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