Worried about light pollution—all those bright city lights and ballpark-scaled LED boards that white out the stars at night?
If so, the last place you might expect to find information would be on the website of a power company, the source of that illumination.
Yet Duke Energy’s new brand journalism site, launched Feb. 22, not only dives right into this problem, but also looks at other subjects any newspaper might explore.
The power company’s site, called Illumination, kicks off with articles about coping with a parent’s Alzheimer’s and the famed African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. A piece on the problem of bats killed by wind turbines demonstrates that the company isn’t taking a Pollyanna approach to renewable energy.
“We feel our stories won’t achieve the necessary balance unless we acknowledge controversy and tackle some of the harder and more complex issues of generating power in America,” says Greg Efthimiou, communications director at the Charlotte, North Carolina-based power company.
RELATED: Utilities communicators: How to establish a brand that withstands a reputational crisis.
Communicating to a larger workforce
The decision to adopt a storytelling approach wasn’t made overnight. Upon its merger with Progress Energy in 2012, Duke Energy became the largest electrical utility in the nation, Efthimiou says. Communicators began striving for engaging stories about the newly expanded workforce.
Duke began experimenting seriously with brand journalism two years ago, and the company began building the Illumination website and stories in earnest in mid-2015, Efthimiou says. An eight-member content and employee communications team produces the site and operates internal storytelling and messaging within Duke Energy.
In 2013, Duke published a story featuring tree-trimmer Cordy Williamson, then a 54-year veteran and arborist in South Carolina. His job was to help sometimes irate customers understand why the company had to trim trees on their property.
After 54 years at Duke Energy, arborist Cordy Williamson knows one thing for sure: People love trees, and they're willing to fight for them. Hard.
He's known homeowners to file lawsuits, involve the police and stage vocal community protests to stop the utility from trimming their trees back from power lines.
Published on “the haystack” of the main DukeEnergy.com website, the story seemed like a good one to pitch. Duke Energy successfully interested a broadcast outlet last year. Early this year, an agency working with the power company successfully pitched Williamson to The New York Times’ Vocations feature.
The company wanted to the foster the growth that spikes on its social media sites during severe weather, allowing it to discuss “all things energy-related, not just when a storm is bearing down, but on blue-sky days as well,” Efthimiou says.
Illumination also covers stories that most companies would rather forget. One article describes how a broken storm water pipe beneath an ash basin at an old powerhouse carried up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into a North Carolina river in 2014. The story notes that the company agreed to a $102 million settlement for nine federal misdemeanor violations, and it was put on probation for five years.
The company writer even interviewed a critic. “My first reaction was tears. I cried,” Tiffany Hayworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, tells Illumination. “We had worked so hard to clean up the waterway. To see all that work, energy and passion from volunteers who love the river gone in an instant was devastating.”
In an article on the launch of the site, the Charlotte Business Journal said Duke’s staff is working “to keep the site from being just simple press releases and happy talk.” NPR and NBC affiliates and The Charlotte Observer have also interviewed Efthimiou and are planning stories, he says.
Take, for example, the question of turbines accidentally killing bats. This is of direct interest to Duke Energy. The company operates 19 wind farms in the U.S., as well as 31 solar farms, and has invested more than $4 billion dollars in renewable energy since 2007.
The bats story relates how Duke Energy biologist Tim Hayes spent months on a national committee charged with finding ways to prevent wind turbines from killing the flying critters. Bats seem to have a thing about flying into turbines.
“No one knows exactly why bats are attracted to turbines,” Duke Energy reported. “Though not entirely blind, as some believe, bats do have poor vision, leading some scientists to theorize the animals mistake the wind turbines for large trees.”
A Q&A piece explores energy trends with the senior program manager for technology innovation at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute.
“When we approached Ron, we weren’t interested in a sanitized outlook of energy in the United States over the next 25 years,” Efthimiou says. “What we wanted was an unvarnished perspective on which of these energy trends are most likely to make significant progress in 2016, and which ones are still being hindered by a number of market dynamic and environmental and economic considerations.”
Contributors for the core team are scattered geographically, and other communicators can offer stories as well. A team member based in Erlanger, Kentucky, contributed a short piece (with video and an infographic) on replacing an old gas pipeline on the bottom of the Ohio River. The new line lies 115 feet below the river bottom.
The return on all this effort is threefold, Efthimiou says. Rather than just reaching employees, as stories once did, they now also can touch external audiences and social media users. Because of this, the two dozen internal groups to which Efthimiou’s team pitched the site in advance all approved of the plan.
Reporters are one target. Duke Energy’s staff strives to create content that looks at issues from multiple perspectives, Efthimiou says. The company will do the legwork to show journalists whom to interview, what multimedia channels they might use and potential story angles they might take.
Naturally, Duke Energy’s staff will also work with reporters who want to pursue their own angle. Media outlets are also welcome to use content such as articles, video, photos and infographics.
A throwback to company history
Plus, here’s an idea for any company that’s been around for a while, Efthimiou says. Duke Energy’s team has been tweeting historical photographs on throwback Thursdays. Now Illumination can add context and history to that.
“Duke Energy has a unique advantage in that we’ve been in business for over a hundred years and have the luxury of a company archive with virtually limitless archival photos, footage and artifacts from the companies that over the years became Duke Energy.”
There is a disappointment in store for any executives clicking through the site searching for photos of senior leaders in suits handing off giant cardboard checks to charities. Duke Energy has a rule: “No oversized checks.”
Says Efthimiou: “Instead, each story starts with a person who does something interesting on the job or off the job, or contributes to their community in a powerful way.”