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How Should Your Utility Deal With Subpar Journalists?

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After decades in the industry, I’m well aware that the media is often criticized — sometimes warranted, sometimes not.

Unfortunately, the problem is only likely to get worse, considering the decline of print journalism and the subsequent rise of suspect online outlets and unverified gossip passed along by social media. Add in  the generally poor salaries journalists receive, and you may well find yourself dealing with a 22-year-old reporter fresh out of college or an aging hack trying to stave off retirement.

The problem is exacerbated for utilities because they aren’t as easy to understand as other entities receiving coverage. It’s not hard to figure out why Popeye’s new chicken sandwiches are a sensation or who won last night’s game, but the intricacies of an electric utility are more complicated. The concepts of peak-load pricing and megawatt-hours are going to draw blank stares from most reporters.

That means your utility’s public relations department is going to need to be proactive in educating those journalists that cover you.

A couple tools should be added to your press kits, aside from the usual general information.

First, a glossary is very helpful. There is a ton of industry jargon that reporters simply don’t know, so give them a handy reference guide.

Also add pages that describe how you generate electricity and the sources you use. Explain how transmission grids work.

And it’s equally important to educate journalists every chance you can get. Invite them to your facilities to show them what you do and how things work. Over the phone, take pains to make sure the reporter understands key issues.

All that said, you can’t turn a bad reporter into a good one simply with education, but you might be able to turn that bad reporter into an OK one. And over time, the reporter might improve — or move on, meaning the successor could be better (or, sadly, worse).

If the reporter truly is incompetent, you could complain to his/her supervisor, but tread carefully. An editor’s first instinct will be to defend the reporter — and you could end up with a reputation as a complainer, which could hurt future pitching. Save the complaints for only the very worst reporters.

Andy Gotlieb's picture

Thank Andy for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 11, 2019 1:58 pm GMT

Great advice, Andy. It also seems like it's important how you frame the interaction. You may be frustrated with a reporter you find sub-par, but they are not necessarily your adversary or coming with negative intentions. Like you said, the electricity systems and markets are difficult topics to grasp for non-industry folks, so patience is needed when educating both them and the public at large. 

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