Utility Companies Turn to ‘PR Guru’ for Help Cleaning Up Their Reputation

The trade organization representing investor-owned electric companies, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), has hired a communications consultant who will help utilities rebrand themselves into something more appealing to the public. The changes will include shifts in messaging, such as from “utility-scale solar” to “community solar.” A new communication plan is expected to be presented to the organization’s members within a month.

The industry is faced with new environmental regulations limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants, and market forces that have made renewable energy more competitive. Solar energy has gotten about 70 percent cheaper since 2009. Brian Wolff, EEI’s executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, told The Huffington Post that utilities are making big investments in solar, installing new solar capacity at record rates.

“What we are seeing is generally a lot of negative attacks on our industry,” Wolff said at the EEI board meeting in January. Those attacks, he said, include ads that are “designed to harm our industry” and “create more distance between our companies and customers.”

Wolff also pointed out how companies outside the industry sometimes relate to customers through electricity, a service provided by utility companies. For example, this ExxonMobil ad that shows Americans turning on light switches:

At the meeting, Wolff told industry leaders that they need to talk about “reputation management,” and presented slides on messaging. “Think of this as a style guide going forward,” he 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.”

EEI hired New York crisis communications expert Michael Maslansky – who Grist referred to as a ‘PR guru’ – to help develop the new communication plan. Maslansky’s firm has helped Toyota through a massive recall for faulty accelerator pedals, Starbucks market its instant coffee, and previously worked with Frank Luntz, who has influenced Republican messaging on climate change, forests, and emissions.

Through interviews and focus groups, Maslansky found that while many people do not hold strong opinions about utilities, some view them as a monopoly and stuck in the past in terms of technology.

Others have raised concerns about electricity policy, particularly as it relates to solar. For example, net metering, which allows home- and business-owners with solar power systems to sell excess energy back to the power grid, has resulted in several state-level policy battles. Rooftop installations can make a profit selling energy to the grid without paying their share for transmission lines and infrastructure, utilities argue. But advocates assert that expanding energy sources beyond utility companies is a worthwhile endeavor.

“‘Community solar’ really resonated with customers … They really wanted something that defined what it meant to be community,” Wolff said at the meeting.

“‘Utility-scale solar,’ owned by the utility, sounds like the utilities are going to be in complete control,” he continued. “We say, ‘Community solar for all.’ Again, there is a way to get around this without trying to get too complicated here. They like the word ‘community solar.’ It conveys the benefits of what we are talking about here.”

“We should proceed with the terminology that is more favorable to us,” he said. “And ‘community’ is clearly more favorable to us.”

One potential hiccup is that “community solar” already refers to a form of distributed solar generation, where multiple individuals or organizations jointly purchase a solar project, such as panels on a shared housing complex. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports that there are currently 91 community solar projects across 25 states.

Wolff told HuffPost that he foresees no problems with using the term, but Bryan Miller, president of the Alliance for Solar Choice, called it “dishonest politics,” given the utility industry’s opposition to rooftop solar in several states.

Meanwhile, the legal battle over the Clean Power Plan is raging on. Earlier this week, several briefs in defense of the plan were filed, including from: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a coalition of environmental organizations, including Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club; a coalition of 18 States and 7 cities and counties; a large group of power companies; and trade associations SEIA, Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Further supporters are expected to file “friend of the court” briefs on April 1.


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