Utility Communications and Marketing Tips from the Trenches
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Roughly 60% of subscribers to EEC Perspectives are women, and many of them are in a relatively early stage of their careers. For that reason, we asked three women at NorthWestern Energy to share their views on skill sets and career paths in communications and marketing within a utility, internships, innovative approaches to organizational design, and communicating during a pandemic. We are very grateful for their contribution.
By Bobbi Schroeppel, Heather Burns, and Brandy Powers NorthWestern Energy
Skill Sets, Career Growth, and Collaboration
Could you talk about how you came to be the vice president in charge of communications at NorthWestern?
Bobbi: My career prior to taking over communications was on the customer side. Our CEO at the time saw an opportunity to better align communications with customer care. While I did not have a background, at the time, specific to communications, I did bring a market research background to the table. To this day, we employ a data-driven approach to how we manage our brand and image.
Brandy, you went to college with the intent to have a career in communications.
Brandy: My path started with a degree program that was a broad touch in everything communications — from learning design skills to writing and editing for multiple mediums to photography and video production. It set me on a course that aligns with what I’m doing today. I’m also the biggest fan of our intern program because I had the good fortune to intern in the exact same department I work in today! I knew from that experience — and I recall actually telling the hiring manager at the time — that this was my dream job.
What is some good career advice you have been given? What career advice can you offer to someone considering a leadership role?
Bobbi: It is a cliché but success is typically the intersection between opportunity and skill set. It is important to enjoy what you do so you can maintain passion for your work. Raise your hand for opportunities, be a life-long learner, build networks, lean forward but beyond all maintain a positive outlook and be yourself.
Brandy: When I need inspiration, I love seeing the impact my job might have on someone else. Go and see your work being received. See how it impacts someone else, another coworker, a customer, another team or whoever benefits from your work. It might lead to future inspiration or learning but it almost always will help spark joy and future motivation.
Heather: Good things, and big things, can happen in organizations where leaders listen and learn. It’s also very important to understand the difference between people and position power and to apply them each effectively. Collaborate and build bridges wherever you are able. Focus on how you can make a positive difference for others and how you can help them grow. It’s truly the most rewarding part of the role of leading.
A New Approach to Building Bridges
You separated Internal Communications from Corporate Communications and placed it with Human Resources. Why did you choose to do that?
Bobbi: I wanted to take a trained and experienced communicator and embed them in HR. Our current internal communicator had only been with the company for four months when we slid her into this role. She was a longtime journalist and well-versed in the communication side of the job. That was four years ago, and her position has strengthened the relationship between communications, culture, and employee engagement. It is important to select the right candidate for a role like this. The individual needs to be a self-learner and someone with an interest in employee engagement and organizational development.
How has this strategy benefited the company?
Heather: There have been so many positives — not the least of which has been better alignment of messaging across internal and external channels. When we have a story that could go onto social, we send it along, and vice versa. Our external and internal communicator work together to bring breaking news to our employees first. We’ve also been able to be more consistent in voice and tone in our communications — the persona of the company if you will. For example, our internal communicator finds ways to connect our employees to our strategic goals whenever she can and understands that building a learning culture is tied to both our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts as well as our desire to increase innovation among our employees. We’ve always been strategically aligned on organizational development interests but this has allowed us to build the ongoing structure to support those interests. There is value in that consistency. I have always thought of HR and Communications as close “cousins” in the organization.
This is What Success Looks Like
With all the employee changes that came with the pandemic, how did having internal communications embedded in HR benefit your employee communication strategy?
Bobbi: The quality and expediency of the communications pushed out to the organization during the pandemic has been fantastic. We have also been able to grow our communication channels, for example, our text alert system for emergencies and high-level messaging. We have also put in place a number of new tools for supervisors and employees that go beyond the pandemic, but came about as a result of our need to pivot and become more agile overnight. Our weekly supervisor email was launched in January and gives supervisors not only a snapshot of important dates ahead, but also gives them a bulleted list of to-dos on each week’s topics.
How does NorthWestern Energy collaborate on internal and external communications planning?
Brandy: The best ideas come from the times we’re able to collaborate and everyone brings their expertise and experience together. It helps to align everyone and build that unity from the start. The more eyes on a given project from the get-go, the easier it becomes to spot problems (and solve them). We try to bake in that collaborative process every chance we get.
Your communications staffing is lean. How do you work around the limits of size?
Bobbi: I am fortunate to have a flexible and multi-talented set of individuals on our communication team. They support one another and wear multiple hats. I think they benefit from being embedded in a part of the organization that has customer, employee and communications together — it helps them to see the organization more holistically. It is really fun to watch the information flow and idea exchange that occurs when you bring these three areas together. We also do a lot of our work in-house via our very dedicated creative services and print shop resources.
Bobbi Schroeppel has been NorthWestern Energy’s vice president for Customer Care, Communications & Human Resources since 2009. She has worked in the utility industry since 1994.
Heather Burns, NorthWestern Energy’s director of Human Resources, has been in her current position since 2008 and in the utility industry since 1998.
Brandy Powers, NorthWestern Energy’s director of Brand, Advertising & Customer Communications, has been in her current position since 2018 and in the utility industry since 2004.
Are You Getting Those Writing Projects Done?
From customer newsletters and brochures, to case studies and thought leadership articles, EEC has been busy helping many of its clients with their content strategy and recent writing projects.
Succession: Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late — ServLine by HomeServe (Summer 2021)
Thought Leadership Articles
ESG Performance Seen as Mark of Quality Management, EnergyTech (Oct 1, 2021)
Central Municipal Power Agency and Services (CMPAS), MN 2020 Annual Report — Award of Merit, American Public Power Association (just awarded at the APPA Customer Connections Conference October 2021!)
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