As PR pros, we know that trust is the core of all that we do. This year, Edelman’s trust barometer focused on a lack of trust in leadership. This is obvious within the energy sector – the government can’t come to a consensus on energy policy, policymakers and their constituents are engaging in a polarized debate over climate change and energy companies are facing attacks from consumers on issues such as fracking, siting and more.
Two weeks ago, I traveled from my Edelman home in Atlanta to D.C. to attend “The Trust Factor: Getting Things Done on Energy,” facilitated by The Energy Collective and Edelman. My energy realm is usually consumed with smart grid technologies, utilities and mining, so it was a treat for me to hear about conditions across the massive energy landscape.
The event opened with a trust presentation given by Amy Hemingway, senior vice president and energy sector lead at Edelman. Following was a panel discussion that included Paula Gant of the American Gas Association, who raised the importance of synergies among natural gas with other energy sources; Jason Walsh of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, who urged subsidy reform for renewables; Peter Nelson, of Resources for the Future, who spoke about the polarization over climate change; and Robert Dillon, communications director of the US Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who sees “ownership of the facts” as key to advancing the energy debate. The panel was moderated by Edelman advisor and energy expert Paul Bledsoe.
Lack of trust in energy is evident in Edelman’s trust barometer, which reflected a slight improvement of trust in energy overall since last year, but the score is discouraging: 59 percent of respondents trust the energy industry to do the right thing. This is in stark contrast to NGOs, which receive a 70 percent trust vote, and the tech industry, which received 80 percent. Considering energy’s importance to the U.S. economy, this position is alarming. Within the energy industry, trust levels varied, with renewables at 65 percent and oil at 35 percent. Natural gas (54 percent) and utilities (53 percent) were the medians.
So, what are the issues? How do we solve them? Part of the problem is a general lack of awareness on where energy comes from. People have got to learn more about the technology that’s shaping the modern electric grid. A lot of consumers love EVs, but have no idea how the electricity itself gets to the car. Ok, so how do we fix that? Think consumer engagement initiatives that some utilities are implementing to educate and empower their customers on smart technologies.
Technology is also a huge player in the energy story, and can provide a solution to the trust gap, especially for the next generation of utilities. As a smart grid gal, my ears perked up hearing about the transition of information technology (IT) into operational technology (OT) as utilities pursue data analytics. I was also intrigued when Gant preached that electric and gas utilities must share technologies to develop a resilient and reliable grid.
All of this seemed to boil down to one question: how do you make people love what you give them? Well, why not take technology, with its high trust score and massive potential, and begin tying it into stories within the industry? We can do this through engagement. As Bledsoe mentioned, “It’s a stakeholder world, not a shareholder world.” Energy companies must focus on empowering consumers, and move away from the traditional emphasis on operations. Despite regulatory and policy measures, the industries within the energy sector must strive to participate in new media and open engagement. Duke Energy is a great example of this with its implementation of its Energy Initiative. Engagement and the incorporation of highly-trusted NGOs and technology can change the game for the energy sector.
It’s now the industry’s’ job to take insight to action. And Edelman is there to help guide the way. Let me know if you’d like to discuss the five behaviors and four outcomes of public engagement, which inform our framework for trust.
PHOTO CREDIT: GE Digital Energy (client)