First you listen to the online conversation, then you analyze, then you participate. In theory, your truly passionate consumers will also participate, resulting in goodwill and understanding — providing you’re not a complete a#@hole — and providing you have passionate customers. Not everyone does.
Is it ever appropriate to hang back? Is it ever OK to reject the idea of public engagement in social media?
Last week, I chatted with a colleague who works for a large public utility. Knowing my interest in in things 2.0, he asked me point blank: “Should we be part of the online conversation?”
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“Well, I don’t see how it will help the company,” he said, “and I think it carries a good bit of risk.”
I asked him to explain.
Electric utilities have certain opposition that may never be satisfied, he said. For example:
Staunch environmentalists oppose the burning of fossil fuels and want nothing to do with nuclear energy. Green power is ideal until you consider costs. Electricity from wind power can cost twice as much as coal, solar about 5 times as much — at least until the technology is developed and dispersed. And in a deregulated distribution environment, you simply can’t produce electricity at those higher rates and hope to compete.
Community activists focus on quality-of-life and neighborhood safety issues, and don’t care much for high-voltage electric lines crisscrossing their towns or subdivisions. Opponents range from those who see the wires as unsightly to those who believe the wires cause cancer — or worse. There’s no reliable scientific evidence to support public fears about high-voltage lines, but you know what they say: Perception is reality. But regardless of perception, the electric company has to string the wires.
Property owners battle utilities almost daily. Most fights in the Midwest of late have been over the maintenance of transmission lines, which requires heavy trimming or removal of old-growth trees. “We have no choice,” my friend said. “The law mandates that we remove the threats to the power supply, and felling a shade tree Grandpa planted 100 years ago is never going to be popular.”
Try fighting that battle before a TV camera or a public meeting! It’s no fun.
That’s just a partial list of angry publics who oppose utility companies. But like the rest of us, they also demand a reliable supply of electricity and natural gas. Can the opponents be persuaded to moderate their positions? I’m not so sure compromise works for many of these folks.
The “regulation” obstacle. Electric utilities are among the most regulated industries anywhere. They must comply with state and federal regulations or risk huge fines. If one company were to go above and beyond — for example, cutting coal-plant emissions and additional 20% — that company would become immensely popular with the greens but immensely unpopular with investors. Only one of those two groups keeps you in business.
There’s no “unique selling proposition” in the electric business. Your computer doesn’t care if the juice comes from a nuke plant or a windmill. And as consumers, we can’t choose “green” electricity unless we put solar panels on the roof. Bottom line: Utilities must produce power they can sell at a competitive price or, like any other enterprise, they’re out of business.
Don’t forget the SEC. Since most utilities are publicly traded, they must speak carefully in any public forum. If you want a real challenge, try fitting a safe harbor statement into a 140-character tweet! While a number of public companies do participate in online conversation, those companies talk about unique products and services that set them apart. Utilities produce a commodity that’s not the least bit sexy. Do you ever brag about your electric company?
The burden on utilities is an enormous one. They must meet demand for electricity in the peak periods, and they have no choice but to accept new customers. They’re subject to massive public criticism, but they can never take their ball and go home. Sometimes they “strategically” ignore public criticism because there appears nothing to be gained by addressing it.
Whereas social-media engagement might put a human face on these mega utilities, will it lower the cost of electricity? Will it improve air quality? Will it solve the issue of nuclear waste?
As we finished our chat, I urged my friend to begin monitoring the social-media conversation. At the very least, I said, the company may spot potential opposition before it hits the front page. It will make your communication more timely and more effective.
But I had to agree that online public engagement — at least in the context of a publicly traded utility — might not be worth a major investment of staff time. I’m not sure that’s the right answer.