Utility Communicators: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure?

I hung up the phone, happy for my friend but sad about his company. It was not the first time I had this conversation, nor would it be the last. And they didn’t all go the same way. Sometimes I hung up the phone sad for my friend as well as his or her company.

My friend is a communicator at a utility. His job was cut from the company’s 2013 budget, but the operating groups he supported valued his work so much that they found the money to bring him over to their business unit. Reward for a job well done. I hope the funding is permanent.

Budgets are a reflection of an organization’s values. Many utilities say they value communications. But funding it? Sometimes a different story.

The act of communications is an attempt to create credibility and goodwill in a target audience. Two metaphors come up again and again when utility communicators describe how they create value for their company. Do they sound familiar?

Bathtub: In this metaphor, communication functions like water going into a bathtub. At some point—you never know when, but it’s almost always at a bad time—an unseen hand reaches into the tub and pulls out the plug, causing the water level to decline until the plug can be reinserted. The unseen hand can be any negative event: prolonged outages, price increases, corporate scandal, or unfavorable citizens’ initiative. Reinserting the plug allows the tub to begin to be refilled.

Checking Account: This one’s even more intuitive, since we’re talking about budgets. Communication is like cash, and the act of communicating is a deposit into your utility’s goodwill account. During the normal course of business, PR problems will materialize, often at an inopportune times. These problems constitute withdrawals from your banked goodwill. When that happens, will your company be able to cover the withdrawal?

Investing in communications brings different types of benefits to different utilities. Not all benefits are the same. Some are preventative. Some are restorative. Unlike locking in a low interest rate on a bond issue, the return on investment (ROI) from communications can’t be predicted. Even after the fact, it is difficult to measure.

Often, it comes down to how much risk—or pain—a utility’s leader wants to tolerate. Having walked down Executive Row a few times with bad news, I can say utility leaders tend to have a pretty low threshold for risk and pain.

Effective, proactive communications can prevent small problems from becoming big problems. Sometimes it can keep even small problems from developing. For example, spokespersons sometimes prevent negative news stories from running by simply convincing reporters they don’t have a story. Those responsible for Employee Communications improve morale among employees by keeping them informed about company initiatives that affect them.

The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies to utility communications. Dressed up in corporate-speak, effective communications provides a utility with strategic risk management. Boiled down to its essence, communications minimizes, and occasionally prevents, a CEO’s pain. Positioned as CEO pain avoidance, communications can have a very high value indeed. 

—John Egan is the founder and president of Egan Energy Communications and a veteran electric utility communicator who contributes frequently to MANAGING POWER.

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