The Public Relations Strategist

Powering a Reputation: Duke Energy Dives Into Brand Journalism With Stories That ‘Enlighten, Inform and Inspire’

April 26, 2016

The Duke Energy content team [courtesy of duke energy]
The Duke Energy content team [courtesy of duke energy]

What’s something you use all day, every day, but rarely think about?

If you answered electricity, then you’re in good company. That’s one reason Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, is investing heavily in brand journalism.

Launched online earlier this year, illumination showcases feature stories, expert advice and insights about energy. Like other companies before us, we are out to tell our own story in our own way, without constantly relying on the traditional media to interpret and distribute our news.

If we are successful, then engaging and vividly told multimedia stories hosted on illumination will reveal to our 23 million customers and other key audiences “the real Duke Energy.”

An evolution

A mixture of necessity and opportunity drove us to experiment in, and then double-down on, brand journalism.

First, Duke Energy’s $32 billion merger with Progress Energy in 2012 ended in an unexpected C-suite shakeup, rattling our combined workforce of 28,000. One of the ways we refocused employees on the future was through credible, colorful storytelling.

We also leaned heavily on storytelling in the aftermath of an environmental accident on Super Bowl Sunday in 2014, when a broken storm-water pipe at a shuttered Duke Energy power plant near the North Carolina-Virginia border unleashed up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

By 2015, it seemed all eyes in our communities and industry were trained on the company. Searching for ways to boost the company’s reputation, we began sharing content originally developed for our employees outside company walls, typically by slipping an article, blog or video onto Duke-Energy.com and posting links on our rapidly growing social media channels. We also offered these fully developed features to traditional media outlets.

The result was higher engagement on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and surprisingly eager responses from overworked journalists looking for a story idea or high-quality content to plug into news holes.

The ‘customer whisperer’

If anyone delivered the definitive proof that we needed to invest in brand journalism, it was Cordy Williamson. The 55-year (that’s not a typo) veteran and Duke Energy arborist has long been known inside the company as the ‘‘customer whisperer.’’

Whenever a South Carolina property owner becomes incensed over our federal mandate to trim tree limbs growing too close to power lines, Cordy gets the call. It usually takes less than 20 minutes for Cordy’s patient demeanor and Southern charm to work wonders.

With his endorsement, we successfully pitched Cordy’s story — as originally told on our intranet — to regional and trade media outlets. The kicker came when The New York Times decided to feature Cordy in its Vocations series. (Don’t let anyone fool you; it’s still a thrill to place a brand ambassador in the pages of the Sunday Times.)

The ‘triple ROI’

After Cordy, persuading senior leaders to support the launch of a brand journalism site proved fairly easy. Invoking the “triple return on investment” helped. Two years ago, employees were the sole beneficiaries of the time and expense it took to research, write, edit and publish features. Now that same investment also yields a steady stream of stories to engage our social media audiences and provides traditional media outlets with compelling content they can republish.

Convincing executives to support our new storytelling approach was a tougher sell. It is easy to agree to put the audience’s interests and needs first, but some found it difficult to imagine Duke Energy’s name surfacing only late in a feature — or perhaps not at all.

We let the results of our experimentation with branded content do the talking. The social media metrics, employee engagement scores and story placements in mainstream media spoke volumes to even our most skeptical leaders.

Content standards

To reflect its broader focus, Duke Energy’s employee communications team became the content team, and other willing communicators were enlisted to develop articles, blogs, videos and infographics. We convened regular ‘‘newsroom’’ meetings to pitch story concepts and mine for topics. Staffers took part in intensive brand journalism training, with an eye on helping the company tell even tired old topics through novel, even irreverent, approaches.

To ready illumination for launch, we pored through our archives and curated a ‘‘greatest hits’’ list of popular intranet features, successful media pitches and tabled story concepts. Then the renovations began. We knew our high standards for content that appear on the company intranet would have to climb even higher for our forthcoming, external brand journalism website. Virtually every feature we unearthed in our vaults required additional reporting, heavy editing and more vivid images and video.

Next we engaged a vendor to quickly — and relatively inexpensively — take our specifications and build a content management system to underpin a multimedia-heavy website. Chief among our requirements: ensuring the site would render as attractively on mobile devices as on desktop computers.

From a list of five dozen options, we chose a name for our site. Illumination reflects our mission, both in business and brand journalism.

Precision and efficiency

To publish “stories that enlighten, inform and inspire” with any consistency, we knew we needed to create a content operation that hums with precision and efficiency. The first step was crystallizing all our processes, role delineations and practices into one A-to-Z guide to aid colleagues throughout our communications group. Rules and norms can often smother creativity, but our playbook set us free.

To break with custom, we resolved to:

• Tackle the tough issues. Credibility is the currency of brand journalism. Without it, content quickly somersaults into marketing, which turns off audiences. We pledged to run a retrospective on Duke Energy’s biggest environmental and reputational crisis in decades, the Dan River coal ash spill, when we launched illumination. To bring balance to the story, we felt compelled to solicit critical commentary from local leaders. One nonprofit executive quoted in the story described her tears the morning after the accident and its “heartbreaking” impact on the waterway.

• Blow things up — literally. Since 2005, Duke Energy has shuttered half of its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina and has demolished many of these workhorses of the 20th century. Not only did we create a mesmerizing video mashup of plant implosions, we also petitioned the Skidmore College Orchestra to let us use its rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as the soundtrack. Our “Old coal-fired power plants go boom!” video ranked among the most popular features on illumination the week we launched the site, and it did not escape the attention of reporters.

• Ban the oversized check. Count Duke Energy among the many organizations that has long relied on humongous cardboard checks as photo-op props to commemorate charitable donations. Good visuals, however, should stir intrigue or emotion, which is why we refrained from showcasing oversized checks on illumination.

• Please the audience, not senior executives. It’s never easy telling a high-ranking leader, “Thanks for your story idea, but it doesn’t meet our editorial standards.” Yet there is no quicker way to dilute the power of branded content than to cater to executives’ wishes — no matter how well-intentioned — rather than your audiences.

Debate over the kind of content to showcase on illumination dissipated once we put ourselves in our stakeholders’ shoes. We settled on these story categories: Expert Advice, Making a Difference, Innovation, the Environment, Remarkable People, Insights and Retro. The common thread? You’ll find people at the heart of every story, no matter its label.

The launch of illumination, and the candor of the stories it featured, caught many by surprise. “Duke Energy goes online and personal” read one newspaper headline. Some journalists who follow the company marveled that a century-old power company was, in a way, trying to become a media outlet.

The number of subscribers continues to climb. Our social media channels witness a spike in audience engagement whenever we publish another multimedia story that humanizes the company, positions it as an industry and community leader and reinforces its role as a trusted energy adviser.

Illumination is unlikely to get people to think about electricity every time they flip a switch, but it just might help them see Duke Energy in a new light.

Greg Efthimiou, APR

Greg Efthimiou, APR, leads content and employee communications at Duke Energy. He holds a bachelor’s in leadership studies from the University of Richmond and a master’s in public relations from UNC at Chapel Hill.

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