Duke Energy's Roche leads amid industry change

Duke Energy's chief communications officer is helping to create the right message during a critical time for the company and the energy industry at large.

Throughout Cathy Roche's personal and professional life, energy has played a major role. Growing up, her father was in the Air Force, so her family spent some time living in Turkey. It was there, she says, that she saw firsthand the problems associated with relying on the Middle East for energy supply. During her first post-college job, she worked for a tourist magazine in London when a coal miners' strike resulted in electric heat being outlawed during the cold winter.

"I was acutely aware of how energy, or lack of it, really affected people's lives," she says.

That awareness initially led to a career as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina covering the energy sector during the energy crisis of the 1970s. She remembers starting each morning by calling the corporate communications person at the local gas company to ask how much gas it had. "He got very tired of me interrupting his breakfast," she recalls. "The period I was a reporter, the energy stories were on the front page virtually every day."

Now, as chief communications officer for Duke Energy, a $12.7 billion regional power company headquartered in Charlotte, NC, she is responsible for guiding a team of nearly 70 communicators as the company prepares for one of the most transformative times in the energy industry. Given that cap and trade legislation has still yet to pass in the Senate, and Duke's position as both the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country and a vocal proponent of climate change reform, Roche must carefully guide communications to educate and engage all stakeholders - including the media, custo-mers, and policymakers. She also works closely with CEO Jim Rogers, who is often in the position of serving as Duke's de facto spokesperson. "At the end of the day, it's the coaching from Cathy and the corporate communications team that helps me hone the message and gets me prepared to tell our story," he says.

Roche, who has been in her current post since 2007 and at Duke since 2000, recognizes the difficulty in telling that story.

"It's incredibly challenging because it's a complex issue, one that is hard to engage people in and make them care and understand the impact it has on them," she notes. "The reason why we have been so active in the climate-change debate is we believe that if we're not engaged, whatever happens in terms of legislation and regulation is very likely to be detrimental to our customers."

Indeed, the impact on customers has been a focal point of Duke's messaging since cap and trade legislation was first introduced last year. From the beginning, Duke's major issue with it was how companies would be able to receive allowances for exceeding their cap on carbon emissions. The initial proposal indicated that these allowances be 100% auctioned off to companies that needed them and their price set in the open market. This is something Duke argued would raise costs for their customers because electric companies that used coal for energy, as Duke does, emit more carbon and would therefore have a higher price to pay.

Instead, Duke contended, a large number of allowances should be allocated, essentially given to companies for free in the short term, to minimize the impact on consumers.

"We started out in a vacuum trying to get people interested in allowances auctions versus allocations," she says. "It's enough to put anyone to sleep, until you start graphically showing folks what it means to them and their pocketbooks."

Part of that strategy included aggressively putting Rogers out before the media and other stakeholders. Already a prominent voice in the argument for clean energy, he wrote Op-Eds and conducted numerous interviews about why an auction system would be detrimental to customers. In addition, part of the strategy was to take the message to Duke's customers in North and South Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky through a regional speakers bureau and local media.

"We were out there very actively, taking that message to media, civic clubs, anywhere we could get anybody to listen to us," Roche says.

Ultimately, the House bill that passed last spring called for only 15% of the allowances to be auctioned off, a victory for Duke. But with the bill's future uncertain in the Senate, Duke isn't backing down on its messaging. Late last year, it launched an advocacy site, sheddingalight.com, which is designed to inform consumers about various issues, from climate change and nuclear power to clean coal and renewable energy. Part of the site includes a carbon calculator, so customers can see the economic impact of auctioned versus allocated allowances on their monthly bill.

"It is designed to bring these issues alive and create a dialogue with people across the spectrum," Roche says, noting that generating public support plays a major factor in all of the company's communications efforts.

"Legislators, regulators do not want to go against public will," she adds, "so public support for us, and our programs, is incredibly important and can make a tremendous difference in our bottom line."

The right story
Duke's involvement in climate-change legislation is part of a broader strategy to communicate the company's position on the need for cleaner energy sources, as it works toward the goal of having a completely modernized fleet of power plants by 2050.

Rogers says Duke's communications team has played a key role in creating the conversation around the company's goals in this area.

"Since we provide a vital service to the communities we serve and we're so involved in public policy - energy and environmental policy - we need to have the capability to create a narrative that resonates with people and actually creates a call to action," he says.

Part of that narrative, Roche adds, is that the changes made in Duke's infrastructure - be it new power grids or cleaner power plants - will ultimately drive job creation and can help in the economic recovery.

"The fact that energy is on the radar screen helps us get our message across," she notes. "I think it becomes clear to our constituents that we're part of a larger story."

Rogers says that part of Roche's success in helping to create the narrative comes from her experience as a journalist.

"She saw the world from that perspective and that really gives us insight," he says.

Roberta Bowman, SVP and chief sustain- ability officer for Duke and Roche's direct boss, agrees that this approach to communications has benefitted the company's efforts.

"Cathy is a master of asking the tough questions and keeping us grounded as a company in our stakeholders' points of view," she says. "To be that bridge to stakeholders, to have respect on both sides of the table, is one of the highest compliments for a communicator."

"One major flaw I've seen in corporate thinking has been a tendency to be myopic and not understand how your actions and plans affect the various audiences you're trying to reach," Roche says. "Very often, a communicator's role is to serve as the customer's voice within the company, to be able to say, 'Stop, that may sound OK to you, but this is how it feels to your customer.'"

Looking ahead, Roche is focused on both internal and external measures to make sure that communications efforts are aligned with the business.

"What I see as the role of communications is to create the public environment and internal employee environment that will allow the company to meet its business goals," she says. "It's really bottom-line focused. Our goal is to create the environment that the company needs in order to succeed."

Looking ahead: Duke's communications goals
Social media. Though the company has its own You Tube channel and various Twitter handles, Roche just recently hired a director of social media to report directly to her. Yet, in time she expects social media to be a capability for all of her staff. "We are certainly heading in the direction of all communicators are going to need to use those tools," she says.

Internal focus. Recognizing that employees are bombarded with many different messages, Roche plans to rely much more on video as an internal communications tool. In addition, given staff feedback that they want to hear more from direct supervisors, Roche's team has stepped up efforts to use them more during major company announcements, like earnings.

Career history:

2007-present
Duke Energy, SVP, chief comms officer

2000-2006
Duke Power/Duke Energy, Positions including director of external relations, VP of corporate communications, SVP of corporate communications

1996-1999
Entergy Corporation, VP of corporate communications and PR

1989-1996
Nuclear Energy Institute, VP of public and industry comms; director of media relations

1983-1989
Duke Power, director of publications

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in