Energy Public Relations Agency Partnership

How to Communicate in an Evolving Energy Transition

By Abby O'Connor

As the energy transition gains momentum, it’s receiving increased attention from the media, legislators, the general public, and a diverse set of stakeholders. Energy companies have the challenge of communicating their place in the massive, complex transformation. And the stakeholders who play a critical role in the success of energy companies not only expect them to deliver on energy goals, but also to do so in a socially responsible way.

I sat down with our VP of Energy, Jennifer Villarreal, to discuss the challenges energy companies face today in communicating their role — and value — in the energy transition, and strategies to employ when navigating the shifting landscape.

An interview with INK Vice President of Energy, Jen Villarreal

Abby O’Connor: The energy transition has been a hot topic in the media for a while. However, it has picked up even more steam over the past few years. Why is that?

Jennifer Villarreal: We’re hearing about the energy transition with increased frequency because there are serious concerns about climate change. And because policymakers are setting ambitious goals to decarbonize the economy. Companies recognize that prioritizing sustainability and ESG can help reduce their carbon footprint and the negative impacts of climate change, while also ensuring ongoing support and investment in their businesses. 

Defining the energy transition is a challenge because not everyone agrees on what it means. For some, it means shifting to 100% renewable energy. Others define this shift as maintaining a reliable electric grid while also committing to a lower-carbon future.

Ultimately, what we’re transitioning to and how we’re transitioning are not entirely clear. But, everyone can agree on at least one thing. The energy industry needs to do its part to reduce emissions globally to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Juggling a Diverse Set of Energy Stakeholders

Abby: Who are the stakeholders most invested in the energy transition? What are some of the challenges of creating communications programs that resonate with them?

Jen:  Arguably everyone has a stake in the energy transition. But policymakers, regulatory agencies, energy companies, large corporations, and local communities are more focused on it than the average Joe. One of the biggest challenges for energy companies is figuring out how to communicate with their key stakeholders — because there are so many. Each has different levels of understanding of the power grid and how electricity is generated and delivered to their homes.

For instance, the general public typically has less industry knowledge. Yet, they tend to drive energy policies by publicly voicing their expectations of the government. Despite those expectations often being unrealistic, policymakers might lean into and create goals around them — like the United States’ goal of decarbonizing the electric sector by 2035. In truth, many in the industry don’t think this is feasible.

So, beyond the challenge of the energy industry having multiple stakeholders, there’s also a knowledge gap and communication breakdown between these stakeholders that’s creating a disconnect between what’s ideal and what’s realistic.

Myth Busting and Expectation Setting

Abby: How can energy companies bridge that knowledge gap?

Jen: It’s really incumbent upon full-service communications agencies to help their energy clients by educating key stakeholders on the energy transition and the company’s role in it. But at the same time, they’ll need to readjust stakeholder expectations, especially when media and policymakers start touting quixotic goals.

Energy companies will always have developers or other folks out in the field. Their focus is on getting buy-in from the public or meeting with representatives to communicate their respective companies’ positions and key messages. Communications agencies can support those folks by doing some of the legwork it takes to inform and influence stakeholders while raising the company profile. They can create materials for in-person meetings; launch brand awareness and education campaigns; or ramp up media relations efforts to strengthen the company’s influence in national, trade, and hyperlocal media.

With so many channels of communication firing off 24/7 now, having a dedicated partner means an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands, whether that’s helping to inform audiences, craft key campaign messages, or ensure energy companies are in control of their own narrative in the media.

Controlling Your Energy Transition Narrative

Abby: What does controlling a media narrative look like in practice for energy companies?

Jen: Let’s say you’re an energy company hosting a town hall in the community where you’re developing a project. Ahead of the town hall, there might be Facebook groups popping up in opposition to the project. If you’re not monitoring social media channels, then you’re going to be caught off guard when there are suddenly opponents advocating against your initiative at the town hall. Let’s say media also attends the event. Now there’s an even bigger audience for the opposition. Plus, you have the added challenge of trying to control the messages and narratives the media is going to share about your project.

You can see how quickly this spirals out of control. And how it can be avoided if you’re factoring in monitoring social media and other channels.

This is just one example of how looking at all channels of communication, and using each thoughtfully to reach specific stakeholders, can have a positive impact on communicating your company’s role, value, and initiatives within the broader energy transition.

Value of an Energy Communications Partner

Abby: Where does an energy communications partner fit into the mix? Could some companies handle those efforts in-house?

Jen: They could. However, it’s incredibly difficult for one company to do everything. They have to educate audiences, ideate and execute initiatives, and manage messaging and stakeholder expectations. A lot of energy companies are getting by with minimal internal resources and can make do without outside help. But if they have aggressive growth plans, they can leverage an agency partnership to their advantage to do more, and do it faster, without sacrificing quality.

Full-service agencies provide significant value because they create fully integrated communications programs. These are an absolute necessity when trying to reach the diverse set of stakeholders with whom energy companies collaborate. And if companies work with an energy-specific agency that’s hyper-focused on energy communications, there’s already a shared language between the two organizations. Energy companies can spend less time ramping up a partner on the state of the industry and more time collaborating on setting and achieving shared goals.

Pulling Ahead in the Energy Transition

Abby: What advice would you give to companies trying to stay ahead of the curve in an industry as fast-paced and evolving as energy?

Jen: Being responsive, flexible, and proactive gives energy companies a huge advantage. They’re able to spot trends and formulate opinions and commentary to have ready for a quick media response. With the landscape moving as fast as it is, energy companies should, to a degree, be “always on.”

  • What’s going on in the industry and how does it impact our campaign or program or larger brand narrative?
  • What initiatives do we have in the pipeline and what are our key messages for each?
  • Do we need to invest in media coaching for our internal spokespeople?

These are the types of questions energy companies should be considering and having frank discussions with their agency partner about. Answering them and staying nimble is the key to maintaining credibility and authority in the industry. It’s also how companies can ensure they’re always one step ahead.

Abby: How can energy companies and energy communications agencies maximize success in moving forward in the energy transition?

Jen: The best way for companies and agencies to work together is by aligning on the idea that everyone is part of the same team. It’s not the in-house team and the agency team operating in silos. It’s one team working towards common goals — in this case, electrification and decarbonization. Ultimately, you’re working side-by-side with these people across both organizations every day. It’s critical to enjoy collaborating with one another and bond over the hard work you’re all doing. Having a “one team” mindset produces the best experience and results for all parties. At the end of the day, you’re all rallying around a shared cause and passion. And that’s making progress in the transition to a lower-carbon, fully electrified future.