This Messaging Guru Is Helping Utilities Clean Up Their Appearance
The industry’s new crisis communications expert advocates “reputation management.”
The U.S. utility industry, beset by stricter pollution regulations and market forces that have made renewable energy more competitive, is seeking to rebrand itself into something more appealing to the public.
CEOs of many of the country’s major utilities met at a January board meeting of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade organization representing investor-owned electric companies. The institute revealed that it has hired a communications consultant who will help utilities upgrade their image. That includes shifting language, for example, from “utility-scale solar” to something friendlier, like “community solar.”
“What we are seeing is generally a lot of negative attacks on our industry,” Brian Wolff, EEI’s executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, said at the meeting. Those attacks, he said, include ads that are “designed to harm our industry” and “create more distance between our companies and customers.”
The Huffington Post obtained a full audio recording of the meeting and a transcript from a source who was present, as well as a 2016 corporate goals document and a recap of 2015.
New environmental regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants are forcing changes at power plants. Meanwhile, solar energy has gotten about 70 percent cheaper since 2009, spurring a rapid expansion. Some utilities have installed their own solar systems. In some cases, utilities have backed attacks on rooftop solar.
Wolff said the industry group had hired New York crisis communications expert Michael Maslansky to help develop a new communication plan that would be presented to members this month.
Maslansky’s firm has helped Toyota weather a massive recall for faulty accelerator pedals and helped Starbucks convince the public its instant coffee was somehow different from others. Maslansky previously worked with Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz, who is credited with getting Republicans to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it sounds less scary, and for christening President George W. Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” (which benefited the timber industry) and “Clear Skies Act” (which actually relaxed air pollution regulations).
We need to be able to think about something sustained, something repetitious, something ongoing.
Wolff praised the efforts of companies outside the utility industry to relate to customers, pointing to an ExxonMobil ad showing Americans turning on light switches. But it’s utilities that provide electricity, Wolff pointed out, not oil companies.
“They’re actually using our product to enhance their image,” said Wolff. “The conversation here is one that we need to be leading, not other industries.”
The utility industry, Wolff told industry leaders, needs to talk about “reputation management.” He presented slides on “using the same language, having the same messages.” And he noted that those who are speaking for power producers are going to develop a plan for “language to use, language to lose.”
“Think of this as a style guide going forward,” Wolff said. “We don’t want to call this a campaign. I view this as something that we need to do year in, year out… We need to be able to think about something sustained, something repetitious, something ongoing.”
Maslansky conducted in-depth interviews and spoke with focus groups about the language the industry should use, Wolff said. The research found that many people had no strong opinions about utilities one way or another. But there were also people who held negative views, he said. “They view us a monopoly, no incentives to serve the customers. They view us as stuck in the past in terms of technology.”
Hence the desire to start using terms like “community solar” instead of “utility-scale solar.”