Community Relations: Do the Right Thing, Then Talk About It

In Psalm 30, it is written, “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Thirty centuries later, in a distinctly secular pop song, Maureen McGovern sang:

“There’s got to be a morning after,
If we can hold on through the night.
We have a chance to find the sunshine,
Let’s keep on looking for the light.”

Across our nation, too many tears were shed in 2020, 2021, and so far in 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic cut short lives and disrupted many families and communities. Businesses and schools were forced to close, and then reopen, only to close again, deferring if not denying the hopes and dreams of too many.

The pandemic was not the only thing that has brought tears to your communities. Natural disasters like wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes — which scientists have said were caused or made worse by climate change — have upended communities at an ever-faster pace.

Having worked at a utility for nearly a decade, and having provided services to utilities for two additional decades, I have seen numerous times when utilities acted with speed and compassion to help people and communities recover from awful events.

Community Relations: Don’t be Hesitant to Showcase Your Good Work

The question is, do your customers know what your utility has done and is doing?

It is still not too late to remind your customers and communities of the good work done by your utility to support those whose lives were dealt a difficult hand during the disruptive state of affairs called COVID.

Here are several examples of what your peer utilities have been doing to increase their community relations efforts either during the pandemic or after natural disasters. You may want to consider taking a page out of their books for your own utility.

  • Consider this awesomely creative approach to community relations undertaken by City Utilities of Springfield Missouri.
  • Burbank Water & Power created a $2 million bill-credit program for customers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
  • Many utilities ran community food drives to help feed those displaced by extreme weather or the pandemic
  • Many utilities increased their cash donations to social service organizations
  • Many utilities increased their promotion of behavioral tips to lower energy use while whole families were working and schooling remotely

Market research conducted by Escalent in the early stage of the pandemic showed that a customer’s perception of their utility’s brand improved when they knew about the utility’s effort to support them during the pandemic. However, at that point only one in five customers (20%) were aware of their utility’s pandemic-support efforts.

Customer knowledge about your pandemic response may, or may not, have improved following that mid-2020 study. As we (hopefully) turn the corner on COVID-19, now is the time for utilities to overcome their inherent reluctance to discuss their good deeds.

Community Relations: Why the Time is Always Now

During difficult or controversial times, companies — including utilities — may be tempted to remain quiet about their good works as communities recover from crises. I have been part of those discussions within utilities. I understand the impulse to steer away from inappropriately talking up your contributions. It can seem unseemly. It certainly can feel awkward.

But that approach risks missing an important opportunity to improve customer perceptions of your utility now and for the future.

Of course, companies have to ensure that their communications are nuanced and sensitive. But deft, and ongoing, communications about your earnest efforts to improve the lives and communities you serve will pay dividends over the long term.

Communications tip of the month: Utilities and their employees typically do the right thing when their customers and communities are in pain. Don’t forget to tell them you are doing the right thing!

For example, as I noted in a recent blog about trust, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 showed that majorities of those surveyed wanted to buy from, work for, and invest in companies that are aligned with the respondents’ values and beliefs.

Community Relations: “Bragging” Can Be Subtle

Informing customers of your utility’s community relations efforts does not have to be brazen or even particularly overt. If your latest effort continues a long tradition of supporting customers and communities, then adopting a casual “been there before” tone when briefly mentioning your actions in customer communications can work.

Another way to subtly promote your goodwill is using the “Did you know?” format like this:

  • Did you know that our employees collected 10,000 pounds of non-perishable food for our community’s annual food drive?
  • Did you know approximately 100 local high school students are being tutored by our employees, who are helping students in math, English, physics, and engineering?
  • Did you know that the homes of 500 customers in our community are more comfortable, and those customers are paying lower utility bills, because we weatherized those homes last year, at no cost to homeowners?
  • Did you know that women account for 50% of our board of directors, and one-third of our senior leadership?
  • Did you know that our employees purchased and wrapped over $1,000 of Christmas gifts for residents of a local elder care facility?
  • Did you know that 50 customers were able to climb out of poverty and find work last year because our employees mentored them on job searches?

Best of all, if you can showcase the recipients of your good works thanking the utility and its employees for easing their struggles, I recommend doing that.

Now, more than ever, consumers are looking for businesses to “do the right thing.” They place a high value on corporate social responsibility. Because utilities are geographically anchored, it makes sense to communicate more openly with your customers who want to do business with companies whose values align with theirs.

In closing, it is always a good time to tell your customers all of the great efforts your utility has put forward to support the community whether it’s because of the pandemic, a natural disaster, or other unexpected crisis. Your stories of good acts and faith will build stronger connections to all of your stakeholders and maybe help them see the light coming “the morning after,” as Maureen McGovern sang.

Illustration credits: iStock unless otherwise indicated

Share Your Utility’s “Right Things”

We’d love to hear what your company is doing in its community relations efforts! Please feel free to share in the comments below. We’ll gather your responses and share in a later blog post. Thank you!

EEC Related Resources on Community Relations

Customer Outreach: You Reap What You Sow
Communicating on ESG: An Emerging Need for Utilities
Stakeholder Engagement: Build Bridges Before You Hit Walls
Quick Hits for Utilities: Boosting Trust, ESG, and Communications






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