Power company’s brand journalism changes the tone

Power generation can be controversial, particularly in the nuclear realm. Omaha Public Power District’s websites have cut reporter phone calls and boosted public understanding of the issues.

Anybody in the nuclear energy business can tell you the topic draws news media scrutiny, whether the news peg is an environmental protest or a flood that threatens a riverside reactor.

Journalists—often non-specialists—may find themselves explaining the technical workings of a reactor or the science of splitting the uranium atom.

So when the Omaha Public Power District began shutting down its Fort Calhoun Station reactor this month, communicators were glad they had a platform for speaking directly to reporters and the public.

“We’re taking control of the narrative,” says Paula Lukowski, supervisor of customer communications.

The power company does that through The Wire, a brand journalism platform filled with newsy articles, infographics and videos on topics ranging from wind farms to a peregrine falcon family living in a box installed on a power plant stack.

On a separate microsite, the company also hosts the Storm & Outage Center, which provides localized updates on downed lines and other snafus that can bring calls flooding in from reporters and customers. (Ragan Communications consulted on both websites.)

Not only does the center provide real-time information, it also allows the community to report outages and encourages photo and video sharing, comments and feedback. There also are stories to humanize the company, such as a piece on the retirement of the forester at OPPD’s arboretum.

Increased web traffic

The Wire debuted in June 2015 and averaged 10,000 page views per month in its first six months. That has increased 50 percent, to 15,000, so far in 2016. The Storm & Outage Center debuted earlier, in January 2015, and boasts 450,000 page views.

Since last year, reach and impressions have shot up 45 percent on Twitter. The tone of the social media commentary has also changed, from slightly negative to slightly positive.

Together, The Wire and the Storm & Outage Center have had a measurable impact. A few years ago, OPPD was swamped whenever there was a major outage. On a day when 20,000 customers lost power, the utility got 66 calls from members of the press, often multiple calls from the same media outlet as reporters on a later shift wrote updates.

“A lot of it was redundant information that I had to keep relaying,” Lukowski says. “It can just wear you out.”

The current platforms have cut the call volume from reporters around storms and outages by a quarter. Six people are the primary contributors to the site, although they have other responsibilities. OPPD maintains the site on WordPress.

News media outlets have begun picking up information from The Wire and using it as reference, says OPPD communications specialist Laura King-Homan, a former Omaha World‑Herald journalist who edits The Wire. This was enormously helpful as OPPD decided to decommission the nuclear power plant.

“We’re able also to eliminate a lot of back and forth with the media by using this story as a direct reference for them,” King-Homan says. “Once we do that, they have very few follow-up questions, if any.”

The power company began its content marketing approach after Lukowski attended a Ragan conference several years ago. The Missouri River had just flooded, damaging and shutting down the nuclear plant for several years. Journalists were pushing hard on that and other stories, such as salaries at the public utility.

OPPD officials understood the need for transparency, but they felt the news accounts weren’t telling the whole story. Lukowski wanted to provide context and take control of the messaging about safety and reliability.

Falcons mark a turning point

That has happened. The story on the falcons marked a turning point: It was the first time reporters took copy verbatim from story.

“I was seeing the same words from my story in the paper, which is great,” King-Homan says. “That’s what we want.”

Stories about the retirement and conversion of older power plants to natural gas have also proven popular. Interestingly, LinkedIn drives much of the sharing, she says.

Videos about the nuclear reactor have also proven popular worldwide.

“That was the kind of video that people just don’t see, because nuclear plants are so controlled and regulated, and we were really showing what’s going on,” King-Homan says. “People who worked in the nuclear industry were completely psyched about that, because they were then able to show their friends and family, ‘This is what I do!'”

Another hit was a story on an employee’s wife who’d had celebrated the 20th anniversary of a successful bone marrow transplant. Social media users nationwide shared the story, which was pegged to National Bone Marrow Awareness Month in November 2015. On one day alone, it garnered 400 Facebook “likes.”

“We think the transplant community just took it and ran with it,” Lukowski says.

The team usually posts three pieces of content per week on The Wire. Historical photos tend to be hits in a company whose corporate predecessor’s history stretches back to 1921.

Often an experiment such as The Wire can be a hard sell with executives, but Lukowski says the OPPD’s chief executive has supported it from the time she presented the idea to the senior leadership team—even though that can involve delving into controversial subjects.

“You have to put your journalist’s hat on sometimes,” King-Homan says. “We really have been thinking about, how is the media going to cover this? What are they going to key in on? … And that’s what we cover.”


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