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Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 1995

John Huey (Fortune, Feb. 21, 1994) suggests that some corporate leaders resemble candidates running for office. Cynically, this conjures an image of the slick campaigner (em a blue suit, a thick head of hair, makeup artists, acting class, and speech coaches. Yet, Mr. Huey raises an issue that cannot be ignored. How can public utilities learn to communicate better?

I've worked as a communications director at a major investor-owned electric company. I've learned firsthand that the corporate communications staff at a regulated utility faces an extremely difficult task. It must present the company in a such a way as to create a favorable perception, regardless of the situation or resources available. This job is not unlike that of a candidate's "spin doctor," who toils to "position" the candidate before the electorate.

Utilities tend to evaluate their communications efforts by the degree of public recognition and occasionally by increased sales. Some companies conduct customer opinion polls, but because the goal generally is to achieve high positive ratings, rather than collect information on which to build policies, the questions are generic and broad. Not surprisingly, the polls confirm that customers are overwhelmingly happy, and another media release is issued.

But competition and deregulation will force utilities to change to retain the allegiance of their customers. Instead of just announcing a new board member or a notice of a rate case filing, utilities will find it increasingly necessary to elicit a response or change in attitude from their customers. Political candidates "sell" both image and performance. They can provide a model for utilities in developing a new communications strategy.

I "rediscovered" four important facts while a candidate for the state legislature. First, public opinion is a myth. There only are millions of individual opinions. An effective communicator must target and reach each individual. That means more than just each household, because too often the persons living under the same roof hold different beliefs, attitudes, and "voting" preferences.

Second, individuals are generally self-centered. They confine their attention to family, work, or themselves. A person will resist outside intrusions like political or corporate messages. For both candidate and company, the correct question is, "How do we make the information so timely and salient that the audience will actually act on the message?"

Third, most of the audience already has a preexisting image of the candidate, company, or product. This preexisting image may fall anywhere between ignorance or apathy to full knowledge plus acceptance or rejection. A good communicator must delete the existing knowledge and replace it with a new "knowledge" designed to motivate the customer to action in support of the company.

And fourth, as a candidate for elective office you must repeat your message as frequently and in as many different modes as possible (em until you are "sick of it." Only then will your audience perceive it. Yet utility communicators generally tell the story only once, and then expect the target audience to receive, process, and act on it.

Hearts and Minds

Candidates struggle to design packages that will break into the consciousness of voters