Customer Service

DIY horn-tooting: No music lessons required

Being small is no excuse for being silent. Across the country, municipal electric utilities are realizing that it pays to toot their own horn. Whether you serve fewer than 1,000 meters or more than 50,000; whether you have a staff of five or 500; whether you’ve been in business for 10 years or 100 years, you must continuously educate the community on the unique value you offer as a public power utility.

Marketing yourself to your community is not rocket science. It’s not even as intimidating (for us at least) as music lessons. Just grab that sheet of music, which we have ready for you, and toot away. With regular practice, you’ll soon be a pro.

It’s no longer business as usual for community-owned utilities such as yours. Challenges to the status quo are everywhere — not just in the form of buyout proposals from the neighboring co-op or investor-owned utility, but from third-party energy providers, corporate giants including Tesla and Home Depot, and even changing uses of electricity and evolving customer lifestyles. Touting your core benefits during good times helps to build the goodwill and community support you need during difficult situations such as prolonged outages, rate increases, declining load or takeover threats.

OK — you get that it’s important to market your utility to your community. But where do you start? If you’re already down that road, how do you up your game to use today’s technologies and align to tomorrow’s customers? Consider lessons from a few utilities that have “been there, done that.”

Community pilots

In 2017, the American Public Power Association executed a pilot program to help member utilities raise awareness of public power in their communities. We recruited nine small to midsized utilities from across the country and worked with them over eight months to understand their everyday realities and help them build a year-round communications plan using just the resources they had at hand.

At the start of the pilot program, we talked to participants to determine their communication needs and capabilities. They requested social media content, infographics, videos, radio public service announcements, bill stuffers, newsletter content, media templates and campaign themes covering such topics as the value of public power, energy efficiency, outage information, rates, customer service, bill management, and safety. With this input, we developed a content calendar for the year and sent resources and templates to participants each month with instructions for use.

We monitored the social media accounts of participating utilities to provide feedback on how to improve or optimize their posts. We held monthly calls to assess their progress, get feedback and encourage participants to share with each other.

Utilities participating in the pilot program agreed to measure success through social media metrics. At the end of eight months, we saw dramatic results in terms of increased audience engagement and awareness. We achieved combined 102 percent growth on Twitter engagements and 222 percent growth on Facebook engagements (“engagement” on social media refers to when people like, share or comment on something you post).

This year, we will roll out the lessons learned and resources developed through the pilot program to all our member public power utilities. A full suite of resources is already available on our website — on the Communication Templates page, accessible from the red Members tab on the top right. A detailed small utility communications plan template — based on lessons learned from the pilot program participants — helps you navigate the resources and come up with a year-round outreach plan of your own. Here are five sample tips.

Get social

Social media is not just for millennials and celebrities. It’s where more and more customers go to get all their news and information, so it’s where you need to meet them. Using Facebook, Twitter and neighborhood platforms including Nextdoor or Yahoo email groups is a good start. Instagram would be a great addition. Post at least two or three times a week (don’t wait until there’s an outage or you have a rate announcement) on each of these channels, and monitor and respond to comments every day. Show customers how your utility works behind the scenes, share energy-saving tips and tell people about the benefits you offer. Get ready-made content — images, videos and text — from the Association.

Work with the city

If you don’t have a communications staff (part-time or full-time), see what your city has to offer. Often a city coordinator or public information officer handles social media and other communications for all departments and utilities. When you reach out and make it easier for them with ready-made content and ideas from the Association, they’ll be happy to communicate regularly on your behalf. We had a couple of city coordinators who participated in our pilot program at the urging of their electric utility general managers. These coordinators especially loved our infographics, videos and images, and they used the pieces regularly to highlight their utilities.

Nurture ambassadors

Your staff and governance teams are your best ambassadors. Train them to talk about the benefits of public power with their friends and neighbors. Plan onboarding and refresher sessions for your city council or governing board members at least twice a year. The Public Power 101 slide deck is a good resource to educate your new staff and governance teams on public power basics. For staff, try to do a quarterly lunch or breakfast where you can provide updates and encourage them to carry key messages to the community. Ask all staff and board/council members to follow your utility on social media and to like and share your posts regularly.

Get out in the community

Get social the old-fashioned way. Leave your desk or your substation and go mingle with your customers. Volunteer at community service projects, join the parade on Main Street with your bucket trucks, attend ball games, teach an electricity basics class at the local school, or host a community event (remember, nothing is as good as free food). Wherever you are, remember to hang that utility banner or to wear your utility T-shirt so your name will be top of mind for people.

Watch your words

Whether you’re limited to 280 characters (the new limit on Twitter) or have more room, keep all your communications simple and engaging — and be sure to weave in key public power messages, such as:

  • You (customers) own this utility and your local government runs it for you.
  • Our utility is not-for-profit and is answerable to our customer-owners, not to remote shareholders.
  • We are all about community — we employ local residents, support local businesses, and give back to the community in many ways.
  • Our focus is to keep electricity affordable, reliable, safe and environmentally responsible.

Yes, you are a “muni.” But referring to yourself as a community-owned utility is a better way to nurture a sense of ownership and engage customers.

Ready to get started? Download the communications plan and check out template resources. Sign up for our monthly email with social media tips and resources (complete the form) If you need more help or have questions, we’d be happy to talk to you — just email us at [email protected] to schedule a call.

The American Public Power Association thanks the following utilities that participated in our pilot program to raise awareness of public power, and we thank the state associations and joint action agencies that nominated them. Congratulations on a job well done!

Utility Meters State Association or Joint Action Agency
Athens Utilities Board, TN 13,000 Tennessee Valley Public Power Association
Central Lincoln PUD, OR 39,000 Northwest Public Power Association
Glenwood Springs, CO 6,200 Colorado Association of Municipal Utilities
City of Lindsborg, KS 1,700 Kansas Municipal Utilities
Manitowoc Public Utilities, WI 17,000 Great Lakes Utilities
Ocala Electric Utilities, FL 50,000 Florida Municipal Electric Association
Pierre Municipal Utilities, SD 7,000 Missouri River Energy Services
Radford Electric Department, VA 15,000 Blue Ridge Power Agency
Wadsworth Utilities, OH 13,000 American Municipal Power