EEC Perspectives

Utilities, Do More Face-to-Face Public Engagement!

I’m not much for poetry — I know, my loss — but one poem that did make a lasting impression on me was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which I learned in Mr. Gagliardi’s 7th grade English class at St. Theresa’s School in Briarcliff Manor, New York. The poem ended this way:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Looking back, that poem helped awaken a character trait of going against the grain. Lots of people root for the underdog or cheer for the Cinderella team. But I went beyond that. I stopped listening to certain musical groups when they became too popular. I often don’t go to movies (such as animated flicks) that are wildly popular. And I delight in exploring the less-traveled path.

Over the last year, I have learned that some energy companies are exploring a less-well-traveled path when it comes to public engagement. Our just-released market research report, Juggling Chainsaws: 2017 Survey of Utility Communicators and Marketers, shows that many utilities are investing more and more of their money, effort and faith in using digital tools like social media, video, chat and text, to connect with customers.

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Utility Communications: Don’t Play Word Games on Price Increases

“You say ‘po-TA-to,’ I say ‘po TAH-to.’ You say ‘to-MA-to,’ I say ‘to-MAH-to.’ ”

That’s the kind of word game more and more utilities are playing these days. It’s a game I expect most will lose, mainly because utilities and their customers are not using a common vocabulary.

Changes in prices — mainly increases but sometimes decreases — will be one of the biggest utility communications challenges this year, according to EEC’s soon-to-be-released Juggling Chainsaws: 2017 Survey of Utility Communicators and Marketers.

On the primacy of price-related communications, the 2017 survey results mirror the results of the 2015 EEC survey, Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases. Given the large investments utilities are making in infrastructure, environmental cleanup and other matters, we expect this trend will continue for the next several years.

Four Tips for Communicating Prices (Not Rates)

When I write, speak or consult on utility communications, specifically pricing communications, I strongly recommend:

1. Use the word, “prices,” not “rates,” to describe the cost of electricity or gas.

2. Don’t get caught up in the specific price per kilowatt-hour or therm, which few people really understand.

3. Clearly state the dollars and cents impact of a price change to the monthly bill.

4. Include messaging about how customers could offset some or all of the per-unit price increase. For example, “The price of electricity is going up 5% in 2017, about $6.00 per month for the average residential customer, but customers can reduce or offset the impact to their bill by enrolling in one or more of our energy-efficiency programs.”

It’s been a hard slog convincing utilities to use a customer-friendly term like “prices” instead of “rates.” At least one public power general manager is all too personally aware of the dangers of using the wrong word in the wrong setting. We detail his unfortunate missteps below.

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Utility Communicators: Where Were You the Day the News Died?

Credit: Amazon.com

Where were you the day the music died? For those of us of a certain vintage, we may recall Don McLean’s song about that awful day when a plane crash killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper. McLean felt rock & roll would never be the same after that tragic loss of life, and he wrote an eight and one-half minute eulogy for it, titled “American Pie” (not to be confused with the movies of that name). Listening to an AM-radio shortened version of that song when I was growing up, I didn’t understand the allusions, but I liked the beat. Listening to it today, I still like the beat, but now I get most of the allusions.

So where were you the day the news died? If music can die, as people and animals and ideas and countries certainly do, why can’t news?

And if it’s not too late, what can be done to revive news’ heart, reinvigorate its soul and postpone its death? Or are we already too late?

 

Credit: iStock

I had those troubling thoughts recently after a utility spokesperson contacted me to point out several errors in an article I wrote for one of my journalism clients. I felt awful about my inaccuracies and I worked with the client to fix them as soon as possible.

My errors did not spring from malicious intent. I strive for accuracy in all my work, as I assume nearly all communicators do. Still, despite our best efforts, mistakes happen. Fortunately, my recent ones were easily corrected.

But as I recently listened to “American Pie” and I considered the errors in my article, I thought about the state of journalism in general, specifically what has been called “fake news,” and what it may mean to electric, gas and water providers.

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