No two public power communities are the same. When it comes to communicating with customers, successful methods will vary. There are, however, some principles that can guide your tactics and help you deliver critical messages to customers and other stakeholders.
Here are five best practices for effectively reaching your community.
1. Meet Your Customers Where They Are
The demographics and preferences of your community will dictate which platforms and forums are most appropriate for reaching your customers. Social media have emerged as a dominant way to converse in our modern society. But in some communities, this may not be the case, and face-to-face interaction is preferred. You likely know your community’s preferences, but it can be helpful to consider metrics to guide your efforts. Are you seeing engagement on social media platforms, or do your posts not generate customer interaction? Are your in-person events well attended? Are customers conversing with the utility?
Ocala Electric Utility in Florida operates an in-house speakers bureau that offers presenters to local civic clubs, agencies, youth groups, homeowners associations, and other groups to share information, answer questions, and address concerns. Last year, the utility took part in almost 300 events and presentations.
2. Make It a Two-Way Conversation
Local decision making is one of public power’s strengths. The utility is an extension of the community and, therefore, should operate arm-in-arm with its customers. Think of your communication with customers as a conversation, not a bullhorn.
Fayetteville Public Works Commission relies on a community advisory group made up of a cross-section of customers in North Carolina. The utility uses this group to discuss current services and programs as well as future plans. Members of the advisory group, who rotate annually, also get an inside look at PWC, touring its facilities and meeting the staff. The group’s feedback helps the utility better understand how customers and the community at large are impacted by various operations and what the utility can do to improve service.
This principle can be applied to social media as well, which is — by its nature — a platform for conversing. When you post, look for opportunities to listen. This can be done by asking questions or posting polls.
3. Think Outside the (Ice) Box (and the Bill)
Get creative with your messaging. Bill stuffers are a tried-and-true method for reaching customers via their mailed bills, but many utilities have adapted that practice by adding messaging to the outside of the envelope. This practice, referred to as “sniping,” can be an effective way to reach your customers with key messages in the few seconds it takes them to sift through their mail and open their bill.
Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, California, has used sniping effectively for more than a decade to deliver messaging on topics including electric vehicles, rebates, electrical safety, and energy efficiency. The messaging often teases more detailed content found inside the envelope in a bill insert.
The Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority — as part of its “Our Local Power” campaign — offered member utilities a variety of tools for conveying messages on the benefits and importance of local power. While the toolkit included more traditional offerings, including window clings, ads, and social media content, at least one utility used the attractive campaign elements to wrap a commercial ice machine with key messages.
4. Be Proactive During ‘Blue Sky’ Times
Communicating with customers during major events like outages is a given, but public power utilities should also invest time and resources in proactive messaging to customers so they can help themselves (and the utility) when the time is right. This should involve thinking about things like how many clicks it takes to get to critical information on your website.
Remind your customers regularly how to report an outage and how the power restoration process works, so you do not have to explain in the middle of a crisis. When a storm occurs, you should have messaging and graphics ready to deploy. Be mindful of seasonal events for which you can pre-plan messaging (such as the winter holidays and graduation season).
This way of thinking should extend beyond outages and safety. GEUS in Greenville, Texas, shared a positive story about rising costs. “At a time when costs are rising across America, GEUS has been able to limit electric price increases in the Greenville, Texas, community,” the utility said in a recent press release. “Our diverse mixture of generation resources is no accident. GEUS proactively maintains diversity to hedge against cyclical price spikes like we are currently seeing in the natural gas market,” said Alicia Hooks, GEUS’ general manager.
You do not need to reinvent the wheel. Free resources and content are available from organizations like the American Public Power Association and the Electrical Safety Foundation International.
5. Keep All of Your Customers in Mind
Keep an eye on diversity, equity, and inclusion in all of your communications efforts.
Make sure your communications include imagery that is representative of your community’s demographic makeup. Consider looping in utility staff from outside of the communications department to review customer-facing materials before they go out. This could provide valuable perspective and will almost certainly improve your communications products.
Your community’s demographics may be changing. You may need to communicate with customers in multiple languages, which might require hiring staff members who have the language and skills to help you reach one or more of your community’s minority populations.
Consult experts to be sure your website meets accessibility regulations, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Most public power utilities have been a part of their communities for decades — if not more than a century — and are a deeply rooted component of local life. But as communities evolve and change, the way people think about power and their electric utility changes as well.
To continue doing what you do best — keeping your community powered — be attentive to the need to update messages to your customers, who are also your friends and neighbors.