Texas utility uses brand journalism to augment customer service

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Communications officials for Dallas-based electricity distributor Oncor could sense the growing power of their social media presence, and they could see how in the fragmented information world that the press release was losing its juice.

“We want to be trusted advisors that customers can depend on for answers,” says Mike Guyton, Oncor’s chief customer officer. “Customers are looking for information lots of different ways. We need to be there engaging with them.”

So Oncor, which distributes electric power to about 3 million homes in Texas, has unplugged its traditional PR approach in favor of a brand journalism initiative it calls The Wire.

The Wire replaces a page of company press releases and includes seven categories, one of which is for investors and journalists, and includes press releases.

The two primary goals for The Wire are to improve customer service and provide thought leadership, according to Oncor Communications Specialist Megan Wright, who led the initiative.

“We’re leaders of the use in social media among our peers in the electric, utility, and energy industry, but we want to lead in broader social media and customer interaction,” says Wright, who has been with Oncor for almost seven years and helped launch its social media initiative in 2008.

The beginnings

Oncor launched The Wire on Jan. 30. It first discussed the idea in April and tracked efforts by brand journalism trendsetters Coca-Cola, Raytheon, and Kaiser-Permanente.

Oncor has more than 5,500 “likes” on Facebook and 8,000+ Twitter followers; it has other ways to alert customers about power outages, including phone hotlines and text messages. Guyton sees the brand journalism effort as an extension of those avenues.

[RELATED: Get advanced brand journalism tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]

Wright is taking a conservative approach in the transition with an initial goal of 20 stories a month, including at least one video and one infographic. There are no new hires, no consultants, and no training sessions. Oncor has a six-month launch plan that relies almost entirely on existing resources, primarily the eight members of the communications team, some of whom have journalism backgrounds.

Oncor is using expertise from its PR agency for advice on Google Analytics. The communications team created a writer’s guideline packet, which explains the target audiences, site categories, the process for pitching a story, appropriate industry terminology, and an FAQ section.

The communications team has an editorial meeting every other week to go over ideas for stories, photos, infographics, and videos. They are building an editorial calendar. For example, they planned on highlighting an Oncor engineer for National Engineering Week, which is the third week in February. The team also meets monthly to review analytics.

The objectives for the initiative are to increase page views to be among the top-viewed areas of the Oncor site, increase social media “likes” and shares and prompt more traditional media pickups.

Drumming up interest

Prior to launch, Wright presented their plan to Oncor’s Customer Experience Council. An email explaining the initiative was sent to all 3,500 employees, who are located statewide. Wright also had a conference call with the company’s 50 or so area managers, who are keys points of interaction with the 400 cities in Oncor’s service area. Area managers were given materials they could forward to municipal officials.

“It’s important for the people who are the face of our company to be knowledgeable about The Wire and be able to talk about it,” Wright says. “This is another way for us to interact with customers.”

In the first three weeks of the initiative, Wright says page views were more than double what the company news site had registered in the previous total six months.

Human interest stories were getting the most traffic and shares—among them a Valentine’s story about nine couples who met while working at Oncor and a story about an Oncor employee who, while off duty, saved someone’s life at a local lake.

The team chronicled the efforts of 74 Oncor employees and contractors who recently went to Georgia to provide emergency repairs following a massive ice storm. The trip revealed a need to refine the process to get content posted on a timelier basis, especially on weekends, said Chris Schein, senior director of communications. Adjustments were quickly made to ensure continuing coverage.

Among the next steps for The Wire is to emphasize Oncor’s expertise in the energy field. Texas law prevents Oncor from being a competitive generator of wind or solar power—it’s limited to distributing electricity.

“We are in a unique position in that we can provide objective information on wind power, solar, and electric cars,” Guyton says. “We can talk about storing energy in batteries or taking load off the grid. Saving money in the electric world is not unique to Oncor.”

Wright said her team is identifying subject experts who can write for The Wire or be interviewed by a staffer. For example, Oncor has a noted expert on cyber security in the electric field, which is a topic of particular interest in the energy sector.

For Guyton, The Wire will mean increased interaction with customers.

“Success is HOAs and cities posting our stories on their websites and their social media. The ultimate success for me would be hearing from customers how they benefitted from The Wire-what they learned, how they saved money, how we helped make their life easier.”

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