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.