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The PR Role in Utilities

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Looked from the outside, the electric utility industry appears to consist of two evenly divided bodies: privately owned in the industrial states and large city areas; and public in rural areas and in some Western and Southern urban areas. Although there is a long history of conflicts and pressures that influenced and shaped that pattern, it stems largely from the investment required to originate and grow; and the fact that from the outset every family and most enterprises foresaw electricity's coming as a cherished dream.

Just 100 years ago, in the 1870's, Thomas Edison built the first central station to distribute electricity for lighting. Fifty years later, in 1930, the nation was clotted with thousands of local light plants. Still confined almost entirely to lighting, when local interests could not finance a facility, the municipalities floated bond issues and built them. In the large cities electricity's early affinity for street transportation attracted investors: often several competing groups put down central stations side by side and went after the business.

It was not until one third of the twentieth century had passed that the federated utility as we know it became dominant in urban areas. Most had collected dozens of losers or faltering municipal small town companies. In the Depression of the 1930's most of the territories away from industrial states and big cities were provided with electricity for the first time from government owned water sources. That pattern remains: and few Americans envision their local utility as a child of want, born of great difficulties. The electric company has become a civic entity.



PR has been long established among the electric companies. But the professional PR practitioner was not admitted until after World War II in most places. The original organizers in the industry were among the most astute PR strategists. Through the Depression years few hired outside specialists for anything: the fact that their everyday needs had confined employment choices to engineers and accountants made these employees logical candidates to head PR as well as its ever present counterpart, customer relations. Having lived through terrific political pressures when low cost government power took its apparent growth birthright by public investment in transmission, the city electric utilities have become as institutionalized as the post office; and the once attractive rural electrification has been forgotten in the materialization of suburban America. They are semi civic, an identity that has not always been pleasant, but they have learned to live the double life and probably are the very best business PR career opportunity around in most cities.

Getting Down to Basics

One of the few industries where the chief officer's workday is devoted to charts and other symbols of costs and expenditures, but is described as a "good PR man," this industry's top people not only work at PR, they sell PR to the employees right down to the meter readers. The impression that PR was neglected in these utilities, long a contention of unhappy rate payers, stemmed largely from their fear of politicians before they expanded their community PR programs to win a considerable respect among the ratepayers as well as among community leaders.

Because the local utility has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property allocated for service purposes on public property and on its neighbor's property, and because these and almost every other entity in the community are users and customers, little that has any emergency aspects occurs without someone calling the utility. Involved or not, the utility PR practitioner must expect calls when the untoward happens.

As essential as short notice availability is, utility PR is a planning operation every step of the way. The practitioner's client is first on every "cause" list, and on every prospect list for propositions where gaining entry is a burden. Here are several categories that must be stretched out and considered in putting together the year's PR program: Employee Relations
  • Fund campaigns

  • Publications and Handbooks

  • Income Dispersal Communications

  • Health, Education and others

  • Benefit Communications

  • Plant Office Communications bulletin boards, slides, movies

  • Service Awards Communications and Publicity

  • Area media Publicity on employee made news & events

  • Management Climate Communications

  • Playground, school related and other public recreations

  • Youth: company sponsored athletic projects

  • Work/Study College: employee related (children)

  • Training Plan Promotion and Merchandising" Campus Recruitment Merchandising

  • Customer Relations
Meter readers, Service home call personnel attitude projects

Credit follow up personnel studies Bill enclosures explaining irritation source Stories to media on effects of storms, weather, etc.

All communications cultivating service relation to rate or other changes
  • Strategic 6 Trade Relations

  • Study of relations with industrial customers in fields with no fuel competition

  • Support electrical contractors, dealers and maintenance Information on relations of contractors, dealers, to utility Consumer information on dealing with electric contractors, dealers

  • Formal plan to notify electric mfrs., distributors, etc. of utility employees as market; of utility promotion of equipment

  • Civic, Community Municipal Relations

  • PR policy on loans of executives for civic campaigns, etc., often for town officials

  • Programs for support of school athletic activities, etc., in utility radio time

  • PR availability of facilities for meeting: civic, health, education, social services

  • Display and media advertising for Civic events PR studies of Civic applications for promotion in utility property in community

  • Leadership in seasonal (such as Christmas) lighting displays and trade (convention) special light needs

  • Shareholders and Governmental Relations

  • PR definitive information on expansions, etc. Easy to understand financial statements Annual Meeting invites and comforts Regular practices on delivering results to all media, including suburban weeklies, beyond regulation release needs Letters welcoming new shareholders
Concern for Employee Status

As the only major industry whose financial costs, including expansion bonds and shareholders' returns, are often greater than its payrolls, the electric industry has long been among the forerunners in employee relations. That ratio of costs was at one time a major factor for employees of utilities to accept a higher psychic income, in relation to his dollar take home pay, than was found in any other industry. It still sets apart utility executives in many places. They tend to think of their service roles before they think of their paychecks.

In the era when utility franchises and acquisitions were frequently on election ballots that brought to life the federated area wide electric companies, they were often classed with the blue collar workers and executive loyalties in telling the story. Now with union representatives for most blue collar workers and competitive pressures for career executives, the PR program has a high degree of responsibility for sweetening the utility career.

Publicity in area media is perhaps the strongest PR tool that is not duplicated in an operating department. As a major taxpayer the company should let no occasion of community participation go by without personalizing it for stories in towns with newspapers or radio stations. This activity should be tied into the employee publication staff that reaches into every department. There is a small risk in publicizing individuals but it is compensated for in re suits. In that vein the practice of publicizing annuitants and long service anniversaries dilutes the "young company" image, but is an incomparably effective tool in developing loyalties.

Taking Management Loyalty for Granted

In the pioneering period utilities tended to take management loyalty for granted. With a somewhat higher factor in this classification composed of supervisors, foremen, engineers and service representatives, utilities have come closest to providing genuine job security of any industry with the life time candidates dominant in their managerial ranks. In recent years they have faced the same recruiting pressures as their competitive industry counterparts, but their starting salary rates seldom are competitive in take home pay.

The most effective link between any company and its management levels is communications. Whatever electric companies do to improve this widely practiced function is in a large measure self defense. PR has a big stake in developing strong management communications which have real meaning to career people related to their lives and their families. The first step is to separate management communications from line and administrative personnel. And when managers are separated, the most effective way to talk with them is in face to face meetings.

Indirect communications and departmental meetings are the basic employee relations tools of management. In converting techniques to bring equal effectiveness to bear on the managers, sharp definitions are required to show the differences between managers and the managed. The key term for management is climate, just as the key term for line employees is conditions. The first step toward improving climate is to open all departmental enclosures so that first line and middle managers have cross company communications. Technically, that means great freedom in adherence to protocol. The day of a lower rung manager going through channels for form's sake is past.

Where PR can do an essential service in organization planning is in injecting perspective into lower manager job descriptions to reflect goals reachable from this original step up. Once a career employee qualifies in management his eyes are glued to the next step. PR, working with the company's organization experts, should chart every potential step up for low level managers. Advancement possibilities should be merchandised in booklets, brochures and even in management meetings.

How Top Management Sees It

At the outset of the 1970's the fantastic growth of industry and suburbs caught many electric companies by surprise. Projections for ten year urban area growth were met and surpassed in five years or less in many places. To say that the public was unhappy at resulting power shortages does not convey exactly what happened to the utilities' reputations. The fact that such a shortage of power occurred in New York City was doubly serious: as the source of news the local situation was equated to national failure.

By applying themselves to their jobs, including the continued search for feasible facilities locations, the New York area operating utilities gradually gained a sympathetic minority. Characteristically, with power shortages a summer problem, the electric company gave repeated and ample notice in the second year of shortage. When weather was moderate the company's performance was better than expected.

The public attitude reversed itself during 1969 and 1970, the most recent years in which the electric city supply was under pressure. In the first, unexpected, year the public reaction was so negative that even the most conservative communities spoke out against the utility management's miscalculating. By showing an awareness of the situation in the second year, the degree of understanding was represented at the other extreme. While many communities were in the same boat, the New York City situation dramatized the value of the PR technique of conditioning the market. And it undoubtedly made this highly PR conscious industry even more committed to these communications techniques.

Summary

Although PR has been long established in utility companies, only since World War II has the professional PR man taken the place of engineers and accountants who did PR in the days of government pressures on utilities.
Utility PR is local and immediate and extends down to the meter readers' indoctrination. Otherwise, publicity in local media is of prime importance.

Questions

What categories are considered in putting together a one year PR program for a utility?
How does PR escalate employee status in the community?
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