Public Outreach Cake

By Published On: September 9, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the third in Current’s summer public outreach series. Next week, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to delve into how to increase public participation in hearings and proceedings used in making major regulatory decisions about utilities. The effort--spearheaded by commissioner Mike Florio--is admirable. More public participation can only improve the state’s energy policies and programs. But Florio’s Sept. 13 workshop is just a first step. It’s ultimately going to require an unfamiliar skill set--like moving from cake mixes in your kitchen at home to chief pastry chef at an elegant restaurant--involving an ever-increasing number of parties as the state transforms its energy sector. Doing better on “public outreach” to spur “participation” in that transformation won’t be the proverbial piece of cake. I’ve been there, working for more than 13 years at the Los Angeles area smog control district as communications manager, dealing with the politics of environmental justice groups, unions, oil companies, major ports, irate residents, obstreperous locally-elected officials, immigrant-owned small businesses afraid of government, ambush TV interviews, protests, and all the rest that’s the circus of public affairs. I learned you need a plan and have to understand what’s really motivating people to carry it out. It’s often not as it seems. California’s complicated and diverse, both economically and culturally. When it comes to major economic players, there’s Silicon Valley, San Diego’s biotechnology hub, Hollywood, and the state’s magnificent farms, wineries, and tourist attractions, to name only a few. They have varying energy needs and different attitudes about utilities and energy policy. Even more diverse are the state’s small businesses and residents. In Los Angeles County alone, people speak 224 different languages. You can drive for miles and see store signs solely in Mandarin or Vietnamese. Reaching all of these groups in their native languages could be possible using: -Social media--Twitter, Facebook, etc. They allow access but energy policy often doesn’t lend itself to followers, like the latest celebrity remarking about their wardrobe malfunction. -Partnering--Using community and business organizations. Sounds good, but managing these small groups often run by part-time staff or volunteers after you fork over the “outreach contract” money can be difficult and real results can prove elusive. -Advertising--There are newspapers, magazines, and websites published in different languages. Los Angeles County has media that use 180 different languages, reaching 80 percent of its language groups. Throw in direct mail, radio, TV, robo calls, text message ads, event sponsorships, charity, and promoting stories to news media through briefings, press conferences, leaks, and news releases, and there’s a dizzying array of choices. All these methods are potentially valuable, but they all require an overarching strategy and clear cut goals. To create an outreach program, start with the goal: Feedback: You might want to simply find out what people think about pending issues. Policy Support: You might want to enlist support--or at least gain acceptance--for spending to satisfy legal requirements. To name just a few, there’s 33 percent renewable energy, cutting greenhouse gases, and ending once-through cooling at power plants. Behavioral Change: On a higher plane, there’s stimulating action by enrolling customers in energy efficiency, demand response, solar, or other programs. The next step in creating an effective outreach program is research to find out what people think, how they get their information, and what makes them tick when it comes to energy goals. You can try to get them to come to a meeting to do this. But, even if you’re successful you may not come away with any greater understanding depending upon how the meeting itself is run. You’re particularly likely to fail if the meeting is set up in typical firing squad fashion, where members of the public come to a microphone to address company or agency members sitting in a row at a dais for three minutes. It’s not conducive to two-way, give-and-take communication that promotes greater understanding on both sides. Instead, it often leads to misunderstanding and a hardening of positions. Two more effective ways to start are surveys and focus groups, which make good foundations for building an outreach campaign. Surveys: They provide valuable information on what people know about an agency or a utility, what they value when it comes to energy programs and policies, how much people are willing to pay to achieve various energy objectives, plus how people get their information about energy and what sources of information they pay attention to and trust. Some communities may be attuned to mainstream media, while others look to business, professional, or community organizations, including local governments, churches, or cultural organizations. Surveys also show how all of these factors vary based on demographic distinctions, from age to ethnicity, from education to income level, and from religious background to political affiliation. New focus groups: While the commission held focus groups on how to handle public input during its business meetings, expanded focus groups should be entertained for more types of input. Focus groups feature open-ended conversation with different demographic segments of the public that’s channeled to the topic at hand. By doing so, they provide more in-depth understanding of what people think and value when it comes to energy issues--from “smart” meters and real-time pricing, to how fast to phase out coal. That’s because focus groups show not only what people think, but what really motivates them. For example, to forge an ad campaign for cake mixes, it helps to know who bakes cakes and why. A survey Betty Crocker conducted showed that women bake most cakes. To find out why, the company ran focus groups. They showed the key reason women bake cakes is that they perceive it an act of love they hope will be returned. That’s why even though we know cake is heaping with fat and calories we dare not turn it down when offered. Doing so is the equivalent of spurning love. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has used a series of focus group type meetings held in neighborhoods around the sprawling city to educate its most vocal critics about why it needs a rate increase and to zero in on how to create a rate plan that’s politically acceptable. It’s taken time. The muni’s staff has had to get out into the community at night and on weekends, but the signs are it will pay off compared to the muni’s previous authoritative DAD strategy on rate hikes: decide, announce, defend. That never succeeded. Once you figure out what people want, it’s time to construct your outreach campaign--creating and targeting your message and making a commitment of time, resources, and money to the effort. Targeting: Successful public outreach requires targeting messages. Bill stuffers, ads in newspapers, and announcements on websites alone won’t be too successful, particularly when written in legalese. Messages must reach target groups through media they normally look to for information about energy for their homes, businesses, and communities. Targeting also means that messages must use the right language and style. Often this entails who delivers the message. Using recognized figures to do the talking can be beneficial. In other words, it’s not about Twittering, but about who’s Twittering or who’s on TV communicating to whom. I change channels when Jersey Shore reality TV show star Snooki comes on. When Bill Moyers makes a rare appearance I tend to listen. Others might pay attention to a Snooki tweet about the sexiness of LED light bulbs. In other words, even though everybody uses energy, you can’t reach everyone with a one-size fits all message. It takes tailoring your communication to different demographic segments to get people to pay attention, much less respond. Commitment: Finally, it takes, time, resources, money, and repetition of your message to attain any measure of success. GM and Toyota don’t sell cars by spending a few cents/year/household on advertising. The auto industry spends more than $9 billion a year to keep its advertising in your face--not counting direct mail, media and public relations, and promotions--just ads on TV, billboards, radio, online, and in newspapers and magazines. That’s about $81/household/year. Those of you who’ve been in a traffic jam lately know that it works too. In most of the ads, they say little about the product, mostly appealing to fun, adventure, status, family, or romance because that’s what sells cars. By contrast, state energy policy makers and utilities love to talk about lofty goals, for instance, demand-response and how much money it can save. But where’s the outreach for program enrollment? Southern California Edison plans to spend just $2.1 million a year between 2012 and 2014 promoting demand-response. It’s got more than 4.5 million customers, so that’s about 50 cents/year/household. Stack that up against the auto industry and you get a measure of commitment. It won’t get you a cup of coffee, much less a piece of cake when it comes to public outreach and participation. Instead, it just goes to show that California energy utilities and policy makers have a long way to go when it comes to the outreach and participation they need to achieve their transformational goals.

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