Eight Years on the Firing Line: Fronting for a Fossil-Fuel Power Company

I joined NRG Energy in Princeton, New Jersey, on Pearl Harbor Day of 2009. Over the next eight and a half years, I talked to hundreds of print, online and broadcast reporters and editors—including the editors of POWER—discussing esoteric topics such as how we fared in the PJM capacity auction to local and emotional issues such as mercury emissions from the stacks of our plants. I butted heads with a U.S. senator, a state governor, countless local politicians, and two dozen environmental and community activist groups around the country, in the media and over the airwaves. But this job was enormously rewarding; I worked with the smartest people I’d ever met, and learned more than I had my entire life.

The Importance of Crisis Communications

The first thing you learn as spokesman for a fossil-fuel company is that crisis communications is often the rule rather than the exception. The second is that your 120-page crisis plan isn’t much use; mostly, you need your leadership to trust that you’ll keep a cool head, be judicious but scrupulously honest in what you say, and adapt as you go. My years in the U.S. Marine Corps helped a lot more with that than crisis seminars. And I was tested by fire; my first week on the job we had a tragic fatality, and over the years several more, including a couple suicides that were personally difficult for me. So-called “PR” people find themselves rarely talking to coroners or state police—but I did, more often than I would have liked.

I also learned very quickly that supporting my company’s brand reputation hinged on just a couple things. Now, I’d had time at a couple PR firms, where the standard operating procedure was “smiling and dialing”—pitching one-off stories around a product or an event. But at NRG it was different. I had to build close and honest relationships with journalists and be a resource to them—not call only when I wanted something. That meant a lot of off-the-record and background conversations in addition to being quoted. There were times when I couldn’t answer a question for confidentiality or commercial reasons. But on those occasions I just said I can’t discuss; I didn’t stoop to the gaslighting I see on the Sunday morning talk shows. And I must admit that I sometimes enjoyed offering pithy and “vigorously expressive” comments; they served my company well because they made our views clear and helped ensure our voice was in the story. And this job was 24 hours a day: power plants don’t close, and my phone was never more than 3 feet away. And somewhat to my own amusement, on occasions I found myself quoted or recorded from a doctor’s office or standing in the aisle of a grocery store.

I never viewed my reporter interactions as inherently confrontational and my job as purely defensive. That’s not to say I didn’t take reporters to task when I felt they were mispresenting or simply wrong, and I went above more than a few heads to editors, sometimes with a line-by-line rebuttal that I know glazed their eyes over. But in my job, you just can’t let those things go unanswered. And if you do, you get a lot of grief from your own colleagues.

Coordination Is Key

It’s important to add that my effectiveness at NRG was enabled entirely by the way my colleagues brought me fully into the business, not viewing me as just a mouthpiece. I was always on calls, in meetings and had conversations—legal, asset management, environmental and regulatory compliance, operations, investor relations, even labor relations. I worked hand-in-hand with our government affairs team and our project developers; all those relationships were key because I understood in depth what I talked about and could address issues with reporters far beyond an anodyne media statement.

Finally, I’d like a to offer three tips for making the most of a corporate communications position, especially for public relations agency people moving in-house.

  • First, don’t make another organization’s problem your own. You’ll find yourself involved with vendors, partners, community groups, even regulators. These folks may run into—or generate—controversy regarding an issue or event that has a tangential relationship to your company, but don’t join the fray unless there’s a clear, compelling reason.
  • Second, always think of your internal business partners as your clients, the way you would in an agency. In my case, I reported to the Communications department, but Communications didn’t operate any power plants. My client was my regional president, and my focus was to support him or her and the needs of the business.
  • My last point, though, is a caveat on the previous point: You’re still obliged to keep your department boss and colleagues fully informed, and to ensure your messaging is consistent. Just like the Holiday Inn’s motto once upon a time: “The best surprise is no surprise.”

Those eight-plus years were the best of my professional life and my hope is that I helped to tell my company’s story fully, honestly, and in a way that was useful to the public. That’s what this job is all about.

David Gaier is an experienced corporate communications professional who has worked in-house and in agencies, and who also has a military and foreign service background. (gaierdw@aol.com)