Bright Ideas Power PR at Toronto Hydro

13 years, 5 months ago

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PR is an enabler of corporate business strategy at Canadian electricity company Toronto Hydro. Blair Peberdy explains how it powers successful community relations activity during major infrastructure projects and lights up green programs.



Toronto Hydro Corporation is one of Canada’s largest electricity companies, distributing 20% of Ontario’s electricity in the City of Toronto. We have three big challenges that have crystallized our business strategy, and have driven profound change into the company in just three years. The PR group understood these drivers early, and therefore has been able to assume an essential role in supporting the successful execution of the corporate plan.

First, like many utilities in older North American cities, our aging equipment needs to be replaced on a large scale over the next 20 years. The increase in capital costs in the first 10 years alone is $1.5 billion to excavate residential and arterial streets city-wide to install new power cables. Unfortunately, lawns and driveways are in the way.

Second, baby boomers are approaching retirement. The average age of employees at Toronto Hydro is 49. It takes five years for an electrical trades person to complete the apprentice progression. It’s physically demanding work that can be dangerous; the transition of the workforce must be managed so that skills are transferred from experienced workers to the young apprentices. This results in a bump in headcount, and an increase in operating costs.

Third, Global Warming is on the radar and has quickly moved onto Boardroom agendas. Electricity companies should be among the leaders in reducing greenhouse gasses. Conservation and the introduction of cleaner energy options have, over the past five years in particular, become strategic imperatives.

Resounding messages

Two important messages are delivered to us through our customer satisfaction surveys: reliable electricity service is expected, so invest heavily if that’s what’s required; and the greener the electrons are, the better. Our employee surveys echo the green theme - they want to work for a good corporate citizen. They also want to see new blood hired into the company, rather than downsizing through attrition and outsourcing.

Strategically, these priorities present a logical mid-to-long term business focus for the company. Invest in infrastructure reliability; renew the workforce; be the leading utility in electricity conservation programs. They also provide a clear focus for the sound general management of the company’s reputation and risk, as well as a great focus for PR strategy that supports the core business priorities.

Intrusive, disruptive construction cannot be sustained in neighbourhoods without proactive community relations being executed prior to the arrival of the crews, and maintained through the completion of the work. Community relations officers are dedicated to these projects and, in 2007, a $110 million rebuild program proceeded on time and on budget with no costly stoppages due to community resistance.

PR staff solve problems on site by approving landscaping remediation, driveway repairs and equipment relocations in consultation with homeowners and work crews. Construction departments, seeing the value of good PR in keeping crew scheduling and inventory management under control, increased the PR budgets to support other capital projects in 2008.

Partnering with retailers on green programs

Toronto Hydro moved quickly into clean and green programs by establishing ‘turn-key’ partnerships with leading retailers, and tying practical, mass market programs closely to the priorities of the provincial government. First out of the gate with investments exceeding $50 million since 2005, we have built credibility with environmentalists, legislators and consumers.

We have reduced electricity demands on our grid by 350 Megawatts through creative PR and marketing, backed up by research, measurement and tight financial management. Conservation, now driven by corporate communications due to its award-winning campaigns, is renewing the Toronto Hydro brand and has become a profit centre.

Telling the story is important; Toronto Hydro is a Top 100 Employer, and that’s a great thing to be when recruiting. PR is supporting the human resources recruiting campaign by positioning the company as ‘stable and reliable’, traditional utility brand attributes, and clean and green.

This is an attractive communications strategy on several levels. It directly supports the core business activities of the utility, and moves ‘brand awareness’ into other operational areas of the company, like engineering and HR. The value of the PR function is evident to the broader organization because it is directly and measurably supporting the successful execution of the strategic plan, and contributing to the bottom line of the company.

Giving essential support

Understanding what’s behind the challenges facing the company has enabled PR to assume its rightful role as an essential support service for the business. We tie what we measure to the core business activities, and use the data to interpret trends and scope-out communications plans to help enable the execution of the corporate strategy.

In doing so, we help to guide the setting of strategic priorities by reassuring our management colleagues that they are addressing the right things. As the business plan is executed successfully, benefits accrue across the board.

It gets better. As the value of solid PR strategy becomes clear, more communications resources are committed, and the success of the company can be attributed to broad-based teamwork that includes strategic, creative corporate communications executed by professional PR practitioners.

 

 


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The Author

Blair Peberdy

Blair Peberdy, APR, Vice President Marketing, Communications & Public Affairs, Chief Conservation Officer, Toronto Hydro.

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