CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Con Edison devotes much energy to its PR message

Whether Con Edison's message is about conservation, a crisis, or the community, Thom Weidlich discovers that the PR staff at New York's regulated energy provider is always ready to switch into high gear.

Whether Con Edison's message is about conservation, a crisis, or the community, Thom Weidlich discovers that the PR staff at New York's regulated energy provider is always ready to switch into high gear.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy. Unless, of course, you toil in the public affairs department of Con Edison. Summer is when the energy deliverer's demand is greatest. So that's when the PR folks are in high gear to get the word out about energy conservation and, in the event of outages, what's going on with the system. That can be a tough, thankless job. To paraphrase an old song: You never miss the electricity till the power plant runs dry. People want their watts like air (to be ever-present), and notice only when they flag. "The most important message for Con Ed is that reliable energy is critical to the well-being of New York City, and that's in terms of the well-being of its citizens and its economic growth," says Pat Smith, EVP at Rubenstein Associates, Con Ed's PR agency. Consolidated Edison Company of New York, whose origins stretch back to the New York Gas Light Company's incorporation in 1823, boasts one of the world's largest energy systems. It is also considered one of the best. In November, PA Consulting Group named Con Ed the most reliable utility in North America - 10 times more dependable than the national average. It delivers electricity to 3.3 million customers in New York City's five boroughs and Westchester, and gas to 1.2 million customers in much of that area. It also delivers steam to parts of Manhattan. The public affairs department, with a staff of about 50, includes government relations (lobbying, grassroots), corporate communications (media relations, advertising, employee communications, graphics), and strategic partnerships (philanthropy, community relations). Rapid response Getting the word out to the press and doing it rapidly - given the nature of the business - falls to the five-member media relations team, situated in Con Edison's Irving Place headquarters in Manhattan. When an emergency such as a power failure hits, the press pros must first gather the details. "We get the information from engineers, the field crew, officers of the company," says Michael Clendenin, media relations director. "We work much like a reporter works. We have to know who to call to get answers as quickly as possible." Other than September 11, the biggest crisis since Clendenin's arrival in 2000 (he formerly ran the city council's press office) came in July 2002, when an explosion at the East River Generation Station on East 14th Street damped the lights in large swaths of downtown Manhattan. "It was a bad fire, and our crews worked well and got the power back on before dark," Clendenin says. "We were on the scene. Everyone was getting the same information. My staff was all here fielding media calls." When the media phone rings, the subject can run the gamut for the regulated company: transmission problems, projects, pending legislation, regulatory issues, environmentalism, community events, its philanthropy, and lawsuits (right now, parent company Consolidated Edison Inc. and Northeast Utilities are suing each other over a merger agreement). Part of public affairs' job is to make sure the 13,000 employees - including customer-service reps and webmasters - have the same information internally that the media people are sending out. Con Ed's big-picture message is that energy doesn't grow on trees. And despite the down economy, usage is up. Hitting home with the public "Our challenge is to educate people that we need to be able to provide the electricity in their houses for their computers, blow-dryers, and air conditioners, and it's more than a light switch," says Frances Resheske, SVP of public affairs. "If people want to use this much electricity, we've got to have the infrastructure so we can provide it." Resheske, who came to Con Edison in 1999 from KeySpan Corporation, adds, "We've found that people will help us if we tell them what we would appreciate them doing. So if you say, 'Please conserve, we're having a problem in your neighborhood,' it's not as effective as if we say, 'Please don't do your wash, please use only one air conditioner.'" On June 3, the company held its annual conservation press conference, in which it announced $522 million in upgrades for the summer and also made its case about saving energy. "We doubled our forecast to something like 200,000 new air-conditioning units going into our service area, and what that means in terms of meeting demand," says Clendenin. Luckily, the summer hasn't sizzled too much. For about a week beginning June 24, a heat wave brought outages to areas on Staten Island and in Howard Beach, Queens. On July 10, the New York Post ran a piece about angry Queens business owners claiming their electricity had been out for 20 hours "despite hourly assurances help was on the way." The paper said Chris Olert, Clendenin's deputy, responded that the situation probably wasn't a priority because it involved only partial outages, which the businesses denied. "It's an example of things we need to get the answers for," says Clendenin. Con Ed has a crisis plan in place that includes lists of community groups, opinion leaders, and others it can reach at the speed of light (well, almost). But more important may be its proactive work. It contributes to about 700 groups involved in everything from sports to science, and Resheske says that goodwill pays off in support when it needs it. Which is not to say that Con Ed does not face opposition. Everyone wants power, but no one wants power stations in their backyards. When the company decides it needs to erect a new substation, neighborhood and environmental groups usually rise in opposition. Getting approval for such a plant on West 30th Street (after a West 24th Street site was defeated) is an example of how the strands of the public affairs department come together, Resheske says. "We worked with elected officials to help them understand the need for it, and actually got some of them to support us. Mike tries to get the word out to the media, both about the specific need for a substation in that community and the overall need to invest in the infrastructure. And we work with local community groups to say, 'We have to site a substation. You need power. But what can we do to make this easier?'" Sharing the good news Putting out the good news about the company is part of the job too. Fortune regularly names Con Ed one of the best workplaces for minorities (it just made this year's list in July). The magazine also named it the second most-admired gas and utility company. Clendenin and Rubenstein Associates worked to land a profile of Katherine Boden, Con Ed's chief engineer, in the July 17 New York Times' Public Lives column. Clendenin says human-interest incidents often pop up that he brings to the attention of the media. For example, he says some Con Ed workers once sifted through the below-ground muck to retrieve a woman's ring that had dropped through the sidewalk grating. The woman gladly returned to the scene to have her photo taken with the crew once the media was alerted. "We have heroic incidents," Clendenin says. "We've had some of our crews rescue people from burning buildings. It's good to let people know there are real people behind their electricity." ----- PR contacts SVP, public affairs Frances Resheske VP, government relations John Banks Director, corporate communications Mary McCartney Director, strategic partnerships Marie Smith Director, media relations Michael Clendenin Assistant director, media relations Chris Olert Media relations managers Joseph Petta, D. Joy Faber, Brenda Perez Outside agency Rubenstein Associates

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