TRI accountability raises the bar for utilities public relations

Robert J. Oltmanns

Skutski & Oltmanns

An important milestone is creeping up on utilities-by July 1, all fossil-fueled electric power stations will be required to report emissions of heavy metals and combustion gases in compliance with the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

The emissions data will be made available to the public through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency`s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) via the news media and the Internet. If that notion alone isn`t alarming, consider that many utilities` TRI emissions could be five to ten times higher than those reported by the largest chemical manufacturers in the late 1980s. Since the public reaction to those emissions drew major international news media attention, public outrage and environmental activism, the consequences of communicating TRI emissions data deserves utilities` attention.

For utilities in deregulated states, the issue of customer choice takes on an added dimension. Customers concerned about the quality of their local environment-or more specifically, the perceived harm being done to their environment by their current electricity supplier-now have a new reason to consider another supplier.

All told, TRI represents a complex, and for some utilities, terrifying public relations challenge. How will they maintain their integrity as responsible stewards of the environment? How will they create customer loyalty in a deregulated market in the face of unprecedented air pollution reports? And finally, how can they build a dialogue with customers and the community that minimizes or prevents hostility and conflict?

The TRI challenge

Chemical and other manufacturing companies have dealt with this statute for more than 10 years, and fossil fuel-burning utilities were only recently included under the expanded regulatory umbrella.

A fundamental difference between the chemical industry`s TRI emissions and those from electric utilities is the materials reported and their health effects. While the chemical industry has largely reported emissions of man-made materials, such as chemicals and their waste by-products, utilities will be reporting emissions of natural constituents found in fossil fuels. One of the greatest concerns is heavy metals, particularly mercury, chromium, lead and others.

The health effects of these materials have been the subject of considerable study because of their toxicity and ubiquity in the environment. However, the degree to which electric utilities contribute to this problem has not been fully determined. Still, the sheer volume of TRI metals and combustion gases that utilities report is likely to result in some degree of public outrage and should attract considerable attention from a long list of affected audiences, including the news media, environmental organizations, citizens groups, neighbors in power station communities, customers, local elected officials, regulators, investors and the financial community, to name but a few.

If the experience of the manufacturers who reported TRI data for more than a decade is any indicator, there may well be a sudden increase in the number of residents who claim utility air emissions affected their health. Cancer risk rates may enter into the local reporting of TRI data. Some cancer patients may bring suit against utilities in their area claiming that heavy metals contributed to their disease.

And already, so-called “green utilities” are aggressively marketing in deregulated states, appealing to the environmental conscience of customers of fossil-based power companies. These companies have already bet millions on the expectation that the public reaction to TRI in deregulated fossil utility states will be large enough to create a substantial market share.

So for an industry that has been the focus of environmental scrutiny and criticism over public issues like nuclear power, EMF and acid rain, TRI likewise promises to be complex and challenging. And like previous environmental issues, TRI will demand a credible dialogue and approach to communications with all affected audiences.

Lessons learned

Fortunately, there is a valuable body of knowledge and collective experience on this issue available from many of the major petrochemical firms in this country. For many, these were hard fought lessons of trial and error, frustration and patience, marked by negative publicity, protests, product boycotts, decrease in stock prices and litigation, to say nothing of the enormous capital investments that resulted from the public pressure created by TRI reporting.

Benchmark research conducted by Skutski & Oltmanns included in-depth interviews with major petrochemical manufacturers to learn what strategies and methods were most effective in establishing a productive dialogue with the community and for building relationships with audiences based on trust and credibility.

They provided a roadmap for the electric power industry to follow that, while sometimes intimidating or unnerving, is based on real-world experience and 20/20 hindsight. Interestingly, their responses generally followed several common themes.

1. Preparation. Utilities should identify and train spokespersons at the power station or community level. Being prepared for the worst helped make the disclosure and management of the subsequent public reaction easier. Referring all questions or concerns to a corporate spokesperson at headquarters may not be practical. Spokespersons must have at least a basic understanding of the health effects and environmental impact of these emissions. Their knowledge and command of the facts will go a long way toward establishing credibility. Above all, public communication of TRI emissions is largely an exercise in telling, explaining, and putting into proper context the truth in terms that all audiences can understand. Companies should consider forming community advisory panels to facilitate constructive communication and public education on TRI emissions or on environmental issues in general. Many in the community expect the utility to announce an emissions reduction strategy. Customers will want to hear about plans for reducing emissions-plans that won`t result in any significant increases in rates.

2. Proactive vs. reactive. Most of the petrochemical companies in the study followed a proactive strategy. They took the initiative in communicating TRI emissions data with the community in advance of the federally mandated deadline. While a few took a more reactive “wait and see” approach, more companies realized the benefits of a “preemptive strike” in advance of the EPA`s public disclosure of TRI data. Some chemical manufacturers claimed that their proactive strategy resulted in a positive community reaction. According to one respondent, “our openness allowed us to control our level of credibility.”

3. Media response. Utilities should prepare for their local news media to list them as some of their region`s largest polluters. By going to the media early, utilities can tell their story in their own terms-before someone else frames the debate. More often than not, the local media will not understand the context for this data. Newspapers are more likely to take time to understand the issue and do a better job of reporting TRI data than television, which is likely to focus on large TRI numbers and the public reaction. In fact, the larger the TRI numbers are, the worse the story is likely to be.

4. Communications strategies. Communicating a simple message about both the facts and the policy positions surrounding a utility`s TRI numbers is the best approach. All audiences will not understand or appreciate the complexity of this issue. Also, it is important to remember there is no moral or social obligation to disclose anything beyond the legal requirement. Opportunities to engage in face-to-face communication, especially with key stakeholders, should be maximized. Employees are an important audience that should never be underestimated or excluded in the disclosure process. In fact, experience suggests it is advantageous to meet or communicate with employees and key stakeholders before going to the media or other public audiences.

These findings outline a fundamental communications strategy for consideration by any fossil fuel utility. It is a strategy based on openness, proactive management of a message and the importance of not yielding the moral high ground to others.

Communicating a utility`s TRI emissions report can seem daunting, but it also poses an opportunity to seize a leadership position. As one petrochemical industry executive said, communicating effectively with the community about TRI emissions “takes leadership…and guts.”

Robert J. Oltmanns is president of Skutski & Oltmanns, a Pittsburgh-based public relations and marketing communications firm practicing in environmental communications. He has been a counselor to clients in the chemical, forest products, electric power, manufacturing, and a variety of other industries for more than 15 years. He is also an adjunct professor of environmental public relations at Duquesne University.

Click here to enlarge image

Anticipation over public disclosure of EPA`s Toxic Release Inventory has created a marketing battleground in deregulated states, where “green utilities” seek to capitalize on the environmental concerns of local utility customers by focusing public attention on air quality issues linked to fossil fuels. Photo courtesy of Skutski & Oltmanns.

Previous articlePOWERGRID_INTERNATIONAL Volume 4 Issue 3
Next articleELP Volume 77 Issue 5

No posts to display