Truth and Dare

Wednesday, April 19th

Easter Sunday I was working on the brae bio-bus and listening to a rock station when I heard an ad for an electric and gas utility. It made me think of Seth Godin’s 2005 book “All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World.” In that book with the catchy title (which Godin admits was meant to encourage sales), he proffers that all marketers tell not lies, necessarily, but stories. The book begins, “I’m not going to tell you the truth. I’m going to tell you a story.”

The utility that created the ad that aired Sunday will remain nameless. In 2004 I wrote about this utility’s opposition to a renewable portfolio standard that was about to be put to a vote of the people…people who are, in large part, the utility’s customer base. The lobbyist for the utility’s opposition group was as angry as hornet in a poked nest over what I had written – and he threatened legal action. I had dared put a toe in the waters of free speech during a political campaign. (To play on the trailer for Al Gore’s, “An Inconvenient Truth:” Nothing’s scarier than telling the truth.) My article was banished from the web for being ‘provocative.’ The RPS legislation was enacted by virtue of the vote.

After reading Godin’s book and the run-in with the lobbyist, I emailed Godin to ask the difference between politics and marketing. He replied…nothing; they are the same thing. Ouch. Frank Luntz in an interview with Frontline talks about the differences between selling ‘politics’ and selling soap: “the way you communicate an idea is different than the way you communicate a product. However, the way you measure [the response in both instances] is quite similar.”

Utility marketers do lots of research on customer satisfaction levels and struggle to improve them – and a vote can be informative, and unique, market research for measuring those levels around a specific issue. A vote can be analyzed right down to campaign advertising buys and voting records. Once a marketer has this information, it can tell an authentic story. Proponents of the RPS are doing exactly that. They are now reaching out in counties where the vote (and advertising) in favor of the RPS was weak. They have a good story: job creation, economic development, cleaner air, water preservation, energy security…a story that tugs at the enteric, emotions and passions.

On the other hand, the utility is running this ad. It sells nothing specific; the utility has few, if any, products. Clearly, though, it has a story to tell – and it is sticking by its pre-RPS vote story, unwavering. (This ad may even be the same one it ran before the vote.) The spokesperson in the ad says she works for the utility. This is (or was once) true. I’ve met her. She’s a bubbly actress, as well as a current (or former) employee of the utility. She says she’s standing at the site of a utility’s wind farms, and names it. Yes, the utility owns and operates this wind farm – it’s part of the utility’s voluntary premium green pricing program. She goes on to say that the utility is the country’s leading utility in wind energy. Yes, by sheer numbers, not percentage of its customer base, and according to the NREL/DOE list of premium green-priced programs, it is. (If green-priced programs are apples, grid-based energy sources are oranges – and the RPS is all about oranges.) She then says the utility doesn’t need a mandate telling it to use clean energy, because it already does – a direct shot at the RPS and an appeal to its base constituency from the vote NO campaign (the high-trust, anti-regulation, right-leaning voter segments). It’s an assertion open to debate (and articles that tick off lobbyists). Then she says something about the environment and emission controls at the utility’s pulverized coal-fired plants.

Godin wrote, “Be aware: If your stories are inauthentic, you cross the line from fib to fraud. Marketers fail when they are selfish and scurrilous, when they abuse the tools of their trade and make the world worse.” And Luntz told Frontline: “You cannot lie ever, because a lie destroys the credibility of the project, and the credibility is more important than anything. Credibility’s even more important than clarity. They have to believe you before they will listen to you. So you can’t lie.”

On Easter Sunday I heard the same old saw, the same old story from the utility that opposed clean energy legislation enacted by the vote of the people, its customers. Somewhere around the words mandate and environment, I couldn’t help but wonder, when is a story just a story (a Godin “lie”) and when is a story (a fib), fraud? Is this ad an authentic story, or is it a fraudulent fib? Did the utility measure the votes of the RPS? Did it determine that it and its story still had credibility? Or is it just winging it?

The utility ad would have us believe that the utility just loves clean energy technology and the environment; it just doesn’t love being told what to do, and it will do the right thing when left to its own devices. Perhaps this is the story that the utility tells itself, about itself. (Per Godin, “We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.”) If that’s the case here, this investor-owned utility is truly disingenuous; it is a regulated monopoly/monopsony; it’s already supposed to be told what to do, in case it, or the segment of the public to which it is appealing, forgot. If the passage of the RPS legislation revealed a few things, it’s that the message (“we don’t need to be told what to do because we do it anyway”) may not have been all that effective. Furthermore, a long list of the utility’s voluntary actions (from continued opposition to the RPS in rulemaking, to dismissal or foot-dragging on wind projects and coal gasification technology, to construction of a hotly contested pulverized coal-fired plant, to resistance to demand-side management programs, to opposition to wind outside the green pricing program) doesn’t quite jive with the utility story. These actions, attitudes and behaviors do not occur in a vacuum; they are covered by mainstream media…which its customers read.

There’s a bright(ish) spot in all of this politicking. The utility is running ads supporting the RPS-mandated solar rebate program. The word is out. The rebates are here…even if the steady supply of PV panels is not. It is suggesting that it will include lots of wind in its energy portfolio going forward…though back to issue of trust, we’ve heard a whole lot of that before and have little to show for it.

In a low-trust world, when it comes to clean energy, can the utility find an authentic story or will it continue to tell the only one it wants to hear?

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