21 Utility Public Relations A Growing Management Resource

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The Growing Role of Utility Public Relations

Utility public relations is not a new field, but it has taken on a new role in recent years. Prior to the energy crisis in the early 70s and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, utility Public Relations departments spent most of their time attempting to build a good community relations program, attending all community functions and participating in numerous civic .activities.

Because most utilities had an excellent reputation with both their customers' arid regulators and caused little controversy with their low gas and electricity prices, management developed a perception that little had to be done in the area of public relations. Electric and natural gas rates were low, supplies were plentiful and nuclear generating plants were "good neighbors/'

That picture has changed today rates are higher, needed new supply sources are controversial and nuclear generating plants are no longer considered "good neighbors." The utility of the '80s and beyond requires a Public Relations department with expertise in all areas. Although community relations hasn't lost its importance, most major utilities now require public relations specialists in the following areas: news media relations, employee communications, advertising and graphic design, government relations, audiovisual services, civic affairs and issues management.



The multifaceted Public Relations department should, in fact, support all operating functions of the company explaining their operations, eliciting support for them, translating and building backing for the company's goals and objectives. Most important, it must listen to the concerns and problems of the publics it serves and those who create the environment in which it conducts its business, call these concerns to the attention of management, and urge and assist in their resolution.

An effective Public Relations department in a major utility is just as vital a management resource as a competent engineering staff, just as necessary as skilled Construction and Energy Distribution departments, just as important as the Energy Supply department that provides the natural gas and electricity for its customers.

Deregulation is quickly changing the utility industry. As these changes occur, the need to communicate effectively with employees, customers, regulators, shareholders, Wall Street and elected officials is even greater. Failure to do so may result in an erosion of public confidence in the utility and its ability to provide services. If it is in the process of building a nuclear generating plant and forced to end construction and absorb the losses, such failure may even result in bankruptcy.

In my view, there will be a growing need for good communication specialists in the utility industry in the years to come not just to improve the company's image, but to assist in meeting its financial goals as well.

A Multifaceted Public Relations Department

Most major utility Public Relations departments are organized in a similar fashion not very differently, in fact, than most full service public relations firms. Although the functions are similar, the department name and various job titles will vary from company to company. Generally the department is called Public Relations, Public Affairs or Communications.

At our company, we merged the governmental affairs and public affairs functions into a single Corporate Communications department. Here is how we are organized, the functions each section performs, and the qualifications needed to work in each area:

Governmental Affairs

This section is responsible for monitoring all legislative and other governmental activities in both Washington, DC, and our state capital (Lansing, Michigan). Staff members actively promote the company's position on all legislation affecting it and attempt to keep legislators and other governmental officials apprised of its activities.

This is usually not an entry level position it requires someone with experience in the governmental arena. Some companies, however, will take a technical oriented person with little or no experience and turn him or her into a governmental affairs representative. To qualify for this position at most companies, however, I recommend working for a federal or state government official for a year or two so you fully understand how the system works.

News and Information

The news and information section is responsible for providing information to the news media the national and state media and financial, trade and industrial publications. It develops and mails out press releases, responds to media inquiries, organizes press conferences and sets up editorial board or general interviews with company executives.

For the most part, positions in this area are also not entry level most companies require an individual to have experience in either journalism or in a similar position with another company. The best way to gain entry into this field is to work as a journalist, either print or broadcast.

They use its products or govern its operation. Effective communication is the key and, as a result, there will always be a need for employees to provide that information. The job is challenging, and it's also worth it in the end.

An effective Public Relations department in a major utility is just as vital a management resource as a competent engineering staff, just as necessary as skilled Construction and Energy Distribution departments, just as important as the Energy Supply department that provides the natural gas and electricity for its customers.

Deregulation is quickly changing the utility industry. As these changes occur, the need to communicate effectively with employees, customers, regulators, shareholders, Wall Street and elected officials is even greater. Failure to do so may result in an erosion of public confidence in the utility and its ability to provide services. If it is in the process of building a nuclear generating plant and forced to end construction and absorb the losses, such failure may even result in bankruptcy.

m my view, there will be a growing need for good communication specialists in the utility industry in the years to come not just to improve the company's image, but to assist in meeting its financial goals as well.

A Multifaceted Public Relations Department

Most major utility Public Relations departments are organized in a similar fashion not very differently, in fact, than most full service public relations firms. Although the functions are similar, the department name and various job titles will vary from company to company. Generally the department is called Public Relations, Public Affairs or Communications.

At our company, we merged the governmental affairs and public affairs functions into a single Corporate Communications department. Here is how we are organized, the functions each section performs, and the qualifications needed to work in each area:

Governmental Affairs

This section is responsible for monitoring all legislative and other governmental activities in both Washington, DC, and our state capital (Lansing, Michigan). Staff members actively promote the company's position on all legislation affecting it and attempt to keep legislators and other governmental officials apprised of its activities.

This is usually not an entry level position it requires someone with experience in the governmental arena. Some companies, however, will take a technical oriented person with little or no experience and turn him or her into a governmental affairs representative. To qualify for this position at most companies, however, I recommend working for a federal or state government official for a year or two so you fully understand how the system works.

News and Information

The news and information section is responsible for providing information to the news media the national and state media and financial, trade and industrial publications. It develops and mails out press releases, responds to media inquiries, organizes press conferences and sets up editorial board or general interviews with company executives.

For the most part, positions in this area are also not entry level most companies require an individual to have experience in either journalism or in a similar position with another company. The best way to gain entry into this field is to work as a journalist, either print or broadcast.

Executive Communications and Publications

This section is responsible for all employee communications, the production of all shareholder information (including the annual report), the development of communication campaign brochures, and executive speeches. It publishes a weekly newspaper and monthly magazine for employees and a quarterly employee information video program.

Although we prefer experienced individuals to fill positions in this area, some companies may consider an entry level individual with journalistic skills. Whatever your level of experience, however, excellent writing skills are absolutely mandatory.

Field Communications

This section is responsible for coordinating all communication activities in our field offices, including local government, media and community relations. We have staff people in our corporate headquarters and in each of our major field locations and two nuclear plants. We also staff a communications office in the state's largest city, even though we do not serve the inner city area.

Positions in this section are generally filled with experienced company people. While a communications background is not mandatory, in our case, at least, the positions generally do require individuals with good public relations or marketing training. Some companies may hire a recent graduate who majored in communications, public relations or marketing for a field position, but the entry level person is usually trained at the corporate office before moving into the field.

Public Affairs Programs and Services

This is the company's in house advertising agency, responsible for coordinating advertising activities, graphic design work, film and video production services, and educational programs for elementary, junior and senior high schools. Professional positions in this area include design production coordinators who function as in house account representatives video producers and educational program coordinators.

Again, our company prefers to use experienced people in these positions, but there are opportunities in many companies for college graduates, preferably those with degrees in communications, graphic design or advertising.

Communications Planning and Research

A relatively new section at our company, its purpose is to provide budget and planning coordination for the department, operate our research center and monitor and coordinate the management of issues for the company's issues committee. Employees from this section write research reports on various communication issues and provide any necessary administrative support the department's staff requires.

Planning and research positions require experienced individuals at most companies. Entry into the field requires a well organized individual who understands how communication plans are developed and is knowledgeable about research techniques. He or she must also be able to write well. Some companies have a separate issues management function, but positions in this area also generally require experience.

How to Get Into Utility Public Relations

You should now have a pretty good idea about how most utility Public Relations departments are organized and how they function. You may have also figured out that experience is the key to working in the industry.

That's probably true for a number of companies it is with ours but there are still many opportunities. This is one industry that will always need public relations specialists, even entry level individuals.

The best way to get a job in the utility industry is to major in some type of liberal arts program communications, public relations, political science, journalism, advertising, marketing, etc. Some positions, such as those in graphic design, require special skills, but in most cases, a good liberal arts education is the base you need to start a public relations career in the utility industry.

The availability of entry level jobs at a particular utility will also depend on its size not surprisingly; it's usually easier to get a job at a larger utility than a smaller one. Most large utilities have fairly good sized Communications or Public Relations departments. Ours, for example, has 80 employees in the public affairs and governmental affairs sections and 20 more assigned to field communications work in our operating regions and nuclear plants.

Smaller utilities may only have one or two employees in the Public Relations department, so they generally would not be looking for entry level college graduates.

If you are considering a career in public relations and want to work for your local utility, contact the department head and ask him or her what he or she looks for when hiring new employees. It never hurts to ask for job search advice; you never know what the outcome might be. You may just stumble onto a job opportunity! At the very least, you will gain some solid information to guide you in your job search.

If no entry level jobs are available at the company you want to work for, then you should try to gain some of that helpful experience by working at a newspaper, radio or television station, public relations firm, nonprofit agency, or with an elected official. A year or two with one of these organizations will give you sufficient experience to try again at that same company.

What to Expect In The Way Of Salary

Salary levels in utility public relations vary, depending to a great extent on the size of the company. Starting pay for an entry level college graduate ranges from $16,000 $20,000. A new employee with some experience in another industry may start as high as $25,000, depending on how much and what type of experience. Large companies, in most cases, have more opportunities for advancement and offer higher salaries. A top manager level staff person can make $70,000 a year or more. You may be able to make more money in some other type of public relations position, but a job in utility public relations can often be just as rewarding.

The Challenge Ahead

A career in utility public relations is challenging. Since it is a regulated industry that supplies a commodity on which people depend, its customers and those who regulate it tend to closely monitor each company, as they should. On a practical level, this scrutiny requires each utility to supply solid information so customers and regulators can make informed decisions about how they use its products or govern its operation. Effective communication is the key and, as a result, there will always be a need for employees to provide that information. The job is challenging, and it's also worth it in the end.
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