Effectively Managing a Smart Grid Public Relations Campaign
By Joseph Gaspard and Nicole Griffin, UtiliWorks Consulting LLC
Deploying a smart grid system is often considered only in terms of the technological elements-the physical meters and field equipment, as well as the software and systems that power them. While a functioning smart grid system requires that each of these components be properly designed and integrated, a successful smart grid program involves more than just functioning technology.
The human element is just as important to a successful deployment, both within and outside of a utility. Utilities deploying smart grid systems must ensure this human element is considered throughout the process, through outreach campaigns centered around clear and engaging communication and education.
As this post illustrates, giveaways and incentives can easily be misconstrued by adversary groups.
Smart grid programs, particularly those with customer facing applications, should be supported by well-designed public awareness and internal education campaigns (public relations campaigns). Examples of customer facing applications often included in these campaigns include:
“- Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and smart metering,
“- Web portals,
“- Mobile applications,
“- Electric vehicle charging stations,
“- Energy storage facilities,
“- Smart thermostats,
“- Energy efficient appliances,
“- Distributed generation (solar and wind),
“- Home Area Networks (HANs),
“- Pre-pay, and
“- Demand response programs (i.e. time of use and critical peak pricing).
At a minimum, smart grid public relations campaigns consist of the following tasks:
1. Define objectives
2. Determine communication channels
3. Define target audience
4. Develop a campaign strategy
5. Define methods to analyze campaign results
7. Analyze results
The first step in smart grid public relation campaign development is to define the goals and objectives. While each campaign will have different objectives, commonly they include: increasing positive perception of the utility and preventing negative perception; educating customers on the program benefits; and, developing strong brand recognition for the program (through tools like taglines, slogans and mascots).
One of the most critical aspects of any public relations campaign lies internal to the organization. The utility should conduct training and education sessions internally, so all departments can answer customer questions in a consistent manner. Additional information appropriate for internal staff should be published and communicated at various stages of the project. This includes information on program benefits, transitional changes on the organization, areas of concern and more. Relinquishing the feedback from utility employees enables the success of the program. Engaging employees also can help a utility better understand and address issues and concerns that may bubble up from the public later on. Any information that will become available for public consumption should first be seen by and vetted by utility staff and key stakeholders.
Misconceptions about what smart meters do and their impact on customers, concerns regarding disruption of service, and worries over impacts to rates and customer bills often are encountered during a deployment.
Courtesy Utility Partners of America (UPA)
When the campaign’s focus shifts outward to the customer, it is important to articulate the benefits of the program. Putting the deployment of a smart grid system in the context of how it will enhance customers’ experiences with the utility is key. Some of the common benefits highlighted in these programs are:
“- Increased reliability,
“- Improved outage management,
“- Greater customer empowerment and cost control,
“- Energy usage insights,
“- Reduced carbon footprint,
“- Renewables integration,
“- Revenue assurance,
“- Improvements to customer service,
“- New customer notification systems,
“- Increases to privacy, and
“- More accurate meter reading and billing
In addition to the benefits that can be realized by way of smart grid programs, there also are areas of concern that must be addressed. It would behoove any utility conduct-focused research and education effort to truly understand all public concerns because they are risks to the success of a smart grid project. Misconceptions about what smart meters do and their impact on customers, concerns regarding disruption of service, and worries over impacts to rates and customer bills often are encountered during a deployment. These concerns can be mitigated, but it is important to identify them early on. Some of the more frequently encountered areas to consider include:
“- Radio frequency (RF) health effects,
“- Installation issues,
“- Privacy/security, and
“- Cost/Billing accuracy
The PR campaign’s outreach effort will require multiple channels to reach the entire audience. Potential outlets include websites/webpages, mailed notices, door hangers, brochures, press releases, social media, participation at community events, focus groups, etc. While new media and outlets are important, utilities have also found it beneficial to use their traditional communication techniques to the fullest extent possible.
As part of the campaign design, the utility will need to develop its communication strategy by target audience, including community leaders, government, utility employees, customers (based on deployment schedule), the media and more. All of these factors should be built into a plan for the utility to track its efforts. For applications that have a rolling deployment, such as a smart metering or AMI program, many public relations activities will be driven by the project milestones (such as smart meter pilot start and finish).
A good example of communication that articulate the benefits of a smart grid program.
Courtesy city of Ruston, Louisiana
An extremely important, and often neglected task within the public relations campaign is the validation of its effectiveness. During the initiation and planning phases, the utility should map out its objectives with a method to measure success. This can include things such as measuring website traffic, quantifying and categorizing customer contacts, surveying customer satisfaction/sentiment, as well as tracking media attention. At the conclusion of the campaign, these outcomes should be documented and referenced for future outreach initiatives.
A good example of developing strong brand recognition using taglines, slogans and mascots.
Courtesy: Westar Energy
Once a utility has built and implemented a successful smart grid public relations campaign, it must turn its focus to developing a strategy to avoid the major pitfalls that have been seen in the industry. This requires:
1. First and foremost, understanding exactly what your program can accomplish. It is far better to under promise and over deliver.
2. Educating internally first. Often utility employees are customers too and can provide valuable insights to the public relations campaign.
3. Involving and educating customers. Customers want to be engaged and educated, not just told what they are going to experience or worse yet hear nothing at all. The latter is a worst case scenario that often ends with customer mistrust. Pilot programs, focus groups and other communication forums can be an invaluable way to engage customers. Opt in or opt out opportunities need to be vetted, fair and consistent across the customer base.
4. No advertising. Giveaways and incentives can easily be misconstrued by adversary groups.
5. Validating your processes with a pilot project if possible. Lack of validation procedures and due diligence, particularly for smart metering can result in high bills, customer complaints and bad PR for your project.
6. Being consistent with your processes and your messaging. When utility employees say different things about the same subject it makes the organization and the project look disorganized. Consistency is key in all areas ranging from terminology, content and overall professionalism.
Smart grid projects can be a success with well-defined and implemented public relations campaigns. As with all things, a utility must identify the goals and objectives and then a strategy to accomplish them. When the project draws to an end, it’s important to “keep the conversation going.” Utilities should communicate post-installation on their successes and lessons learned not only to their local community but to a broader industry audience if there is value there. After going through its first smart grid PR campaign, a utility will have begun to initiate a new rapport with its customers, one that is often more proactive and less reactive. This is a great way to build customer satisfaction and continue to engage customers with new offerings and insights. These projects often become a new opportunity to completely redefine a utility’s relationship with its customers. It important to do it right.
Nicole Griffin is an associate for UtiliWorks Consulting LLC based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with more than seven years of direct utility experience. Nicole specializes in development of public relations campaigns, procurement management and assessments/feasibility studies. Nicole is a Project Management Institute (PMI) certified Project Management Professional (PMP), a Six Sigma Black belt and a certified Social Media Specialist by Louisiana State University (LSU). She holds bachelors’ degrees in journalism and media studies and environmental science from Rutgers University.
Joseph Gaspard is a UtiliWorks associate based in New York City who brings experience working in modeling, legal compliance and digital marketing to UtiliWorks. Prior to joining UtiliWorks in 2014, Joseph specialized in marketing for both the luxury real estate and publishing industries. As a Project Management Institute (PMI) Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), he supports the financial and operational analytics practices at UtiliWorks, working with utility clients on business process redevelopment and conducting assessments. He holds a bachelors’ degree in government from Harvard University.