EEC Perspectives

Utility Communications: How to Stay Out of the “Smart-Talk” Trap


When was the last time you did a 540°?

What hill are you willing to die on?

Have you ever used “architect” as a verb?

Do you have enough bandwidth to growth-hack the analytics?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have fallen into The Smart-Talk Trap. Some organizations reward people for sounding smart rather than being smart (or getting things done). People pursue (or attain) the perception of being smart by sprinkling the latest buzzwords, jargon or acronyms into their conversations (see Dilbert cartoon below). “Smart talk” people are betting no one in their audience is willing to raise their hand and say, “I’m sorry, what does that mean in plain English?”

DILBERT © 2015 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Utility Communications Can Fall Prey to Smart-Talk Trap

Although “smart talk” may be less prevalent in utilities compared to technology companies or consultancies, I suspect no business is immune. As Jerry Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, co-authors of the HBR “Smart-Talk Trap” article, wrote:

We found that a particular kind of talk is an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: “smart talk.” The elements of smart talk include sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary. But smart talk tends to have other, less benign components: first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in its tracks. That’s why we call this dynamic the smart-talk trap.

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Crisis Communications: What’s Brewing Inside Your Utility?

Credit: iStock

“Do you ever speak on utility crisis communications?” Barry Moline, executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association, asked me in a recent phone call. I told him I did. He asked if I could speak on that topic at CMUA’s annual conference. I told Barry I would be delighted. Readers interested in my take on utility crisis communications can check my previous blog posts, like here and here and here.

True or False:  Most Crises Take Place Outside an Organization

Maybe true. Maybe false. What we do know is that crises take place inside and outside organizations. What also is clear is that it’s generally easier for communications professionals to discuss a utility’s crisis communication response to an external event like a flood or tornado. Communications tied to internal problems tend to be more difficult.

Other speakers on that CMUA panel were scheduled to discuss their crisis communications work on external events: last year’s California wildfires and the potential collapse of a spillway at the Oroville Dam, the state’s second-largest reservoir.

Where could I add value to that panel? What wasn’t being discussed? I thought about the role organizational culture played in internally generated crises that have engulfed businesses and people in recent years: sexual misconduct in the workplace; United Airlines dragging a passenger off one of its planes; performance-enhancing drugs in sports; the malfeasance of financial firms that created the housing bubble and the Great Recession; and Enron.

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Utility Marketing: Cash on the Barrel or Cash Down the Drain?

Credit: iStock

Raise your hand if you think your utility marketing efforts are misguided.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. But rather than call out your utility’s marketing team, a less-confrontational approach might be to consider third-party research. That’s what today’s post is all about. You’re not saying it, I am.

For years and years, corporate checkbooks have played an outsized role in utility marketing endeavors, whether it was efficiency programs or some other endeavor. I’m referring to rebates, incentives and other cash utilities spend to understand the market, or prime the market, or transform the market, or shift the market, or outright buy the market.

Communications Tip of the Month: Money is only one of several tools at the disposal of utility marketers. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. That’s no way to build an effective marketing program.

Utility Marketing Programs: Checkbook or Creativity?

Earlier in my career, I worked for a well-regarded electric utility that was fighting marketing incursions from a gas utility. We had long dominated the market for residential new construction by incenting builders to put in electric heat pumps (instead of air conditioners and gas furnaces) in the homes they were building. The gas utility wanted to get furnaces into those new homes.

Back then, my utility’s primary weapon was its checkbook, and for a while, it worked: over 75% of all new homes built in the area had an electric heat pump. But then, it failed, largely because the gas utility had more creativity than we had money.

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