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The Growing Role of Utility Public Relations

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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 and 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 '90s 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 public 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.

Corporate Communications

This section is responsible for most of our internal and external communications, including all employee communications, advertising, communications with customers, communications support for marketing, the production of all shareholder information (including the annual report), the development of communication campaign material, and executive speeches. It publishes a weekly newspaper and monthly magazine for employees and a quarterly employee information video program.

This area also provides graphic design work and film and video production services. Professional positions in this area include graphic designers, coordinators, and video producers.

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, monitor and coordinate the management of issues for the company's issues committee, and operate our corporate giving program. 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.
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