Communicating public power’s environmental stewardship

As the public’s concern for the environment grows, public power utilities must make a greater effort to explain how renewables fit into broader generation plans, emphasize that they are community-owned, and leverage the news media to tell their story, panelists said on June 10 at the American Public Power Association’s 2019 National Conference.

The session, “Green is the New Black: Communicating Environmental Stewardship,” focused on how to educate communities and stakeholders about public power’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

Meena Dayak, Vice President of Integrated Media and Communications at the Association, noted the groundswell of support for protecting the environment, both in the U.S. and across the globe and pointed out that concern for the environment cuts across political affiliations, as well as age and income groups.

She noted that public power must focus on three things to address public sentiment on the environment — reiterate its roots, educate, and engage.

“You need to go back to the fact that you are community-owned utilities,” Dayak said. “You do not answer to remote shareholders, so what the community wants is what the community gets. You need to remind the people you serve that they actually have a voice in decision making.”

In addition, public power utilities need to educate people on their short and long-term plans. “Talk about where you expect to be in terms of, let’s say, your generation mix, or the way you deliver electricity – whether it’s five years, ten years or 20 years from now. You need to communicate that as broadly as possible to the community.”

It’s important for utilities to talk about the consequences of their decisions and about everything they are doing to make a difference.”

As for engagement, “it’s important that we don’t just talk at our customers anymore,” Dayak said. There needs to be two-way communication between public power utilities and their customers.

She noted that because public power is in the community, there is a unique opportunity to “go out into the schools, to be educating people right from the elementary school level because kids can make a difference.”

Dayak noted that in 2018, the Association conducted its first national awareness campaign and is considering adding a school-based component this year.

Steve Roalstad, Communications and Marketing Manager at Colorado’s Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), said that if a utility is not maintaining strong system reliability or keeping a lid on costs, “all the environmental communications in the world won’t do you any good.”

However, if a utility has those two things covered, Roalstad has found that the news media is twenty to thirty percent more likely to provide “space or to cover you if you’re talking about environmental stewardship.” If a utility is proactive, the fairness of the coverage increases. “I look at that and say it behooves us to talk about environmental stewardship issues.”

A communications strategy really begins at the top, said Roalstad. If your organization does not have a goal and it does not have a strategy, then usually there’s no action,” he said. “You’ve got to have the leadership there and goals set forth for the action to take place so that you can tell a story.”

PRPA is a not-for-profit wholesale electricity generation and transmission provider that delivers energy and services to its owner communities of Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland, Colorado for delivery to their utility customers.

When Roalstad first took on his role as communications and marketing manager at PRPA, he developed a three-step communications strategy.

The first step involved shifting the conversation. PRPA’s top generating facility is a 280-megawatt coal plant. Instead of talking about megawatt hours or coal burnt, PRPA highlighted how having the plant in its portfolio gave it the flexibility to do other things.

PRPA is leveraging the plant’s efficiency to build more wind, solar, etc. “So it’s actually an asset for us in many ways – not only from a system reliability and overall production point of view, but it’s actually enabling us to go out and build more renewables,” explained Roalstad.

Public power utilities must not be afraid to get out into the community and talk about what they’re doing. “If you have third party endorsements, that’s always a benefit,” he added.

The second step calls for making bold statements.

In 2018, PRPA started talking about developing a 50 percent non-carbon portfolio by 2021 “and people really stood up and took notice,” Roalstad said.

At the same time, PRPA was talking about what it would take to create a zero net-carbon (ZNC) energy mix. A study completed by Pace Global LLC in late 2017 concluded that a ZNC energy portfolio for the PRPA owner communities could be achieved.

In December, the PRPA board of directors committed to a 100 percent non-carbon portfolio by 2030. “That got a lot of headlines,” Roalstad said. “If you have that story to tell, it works.”

The third step is for utilities to measure what they are doing and if they’re not achieving objectives, then recalibrating the strategy.

A 2018 community survey revealed that PRPA has 56 percent name recognition and a 68% favorable to very favorable rating.

Roalstad said PRPA got about a half a million dollars’ worth of brand value out of media coverage. “I would have to spend another $500,000 that I don’t have to get the same kind of communications impact that I did by using the news media. So don’t be afraid to work with the news media.”

Bill Coletti, Founder & CEO of Austin, Texas-based Kith Consulting, said that “a company owns its brand, but the public owns its reputation.”

Coletti discussed what he referred to as the seven levers of reputation: (1) transparency, (2) responsible citizenship, (3) leadership privilege, (4) employee endorsement, (5) products/services, (6) financial performance and strength and (7) innovation and ideas.

“It’s with these seven levers that we should look at environmental engagement programs,” he said. “If we bury it in responsible citizenship, that’s a mistake. We should not bury it. It should be a part of the CEO agenda, it should be a part of the employees’ conversations that they have.”

Coletti said that the environmental initiatives of public power utilities should bolster their reputations and create growth and that’s where public power utilities should show leadership.