Digital hand reaching out to a human hand

The future of stakeholder engagement

The utilities sector has come under huge scrutiny over the past few years. The growth of the re-nationalisation movement as well as questions around legitimacy and fairness have been raised by groups such as WeOwnIt and most notably the Labour Party, in response to perceived increases in bills and cost of living.

Whilst some thought the Conservative landslide in the 2019 General Election would put an end to these arguments, there is very little sign that things have changed.

The pressure from central government and regulators on the utilities sector to ensure proactive engagement with customers and stakeholders is still there, with more and more emphasis being placed on open dialogue and innovation around communications.

RIIO-2 and PR19 are two examples of where OFGEM and OFWAT have enforced strict guidance on companies to produce thorough and meaningful engagement, where the views and feedback from a variety of audiences is sought and meaningfully taken into account in the business planning process.

The days where Distribution Network Operators and Gas Distribution Networks can act as a ‘silent service’ are long gone. Instead these companies, and others like them within the water sector, are now expected to communicate their activities and vision with purpose, clarity and transparency. It may be uncomfortable for many of these companies to begin with, but it is a reality that is unlikely to change.

Luckily, there are already good stories to tell. Most companies now operate affordability schemes, where customers facing vulnerable situations can access help, advice, and financial support. Likewise, many companies are operating with strong sustainability plans and are actively pursuing net-zero targets whilst reducing their carbon footprints.

But are they communicating this good work effectively?

In our latest report in the Future of Stakeholder Engagement, we talk through the methods and channels that we have utilised to help utilities firms better communicate with their customers and stakeholders.

If the COVID-19 lockdown has shown us anything, it is that digital communications and digital platforms are now a vital part of any communications strategy. Webinars, virtual exhibitions and online conferences are now seen as the ‘norm’ when engaging audiences, whilst social media and influencer marketing are no longer “nice to haves” but instead key parts of any delivery strategy.

Companies across the UK are utilising these channels effectively to broaden their reach to customers and stakeholders, particularly those groups that may have traditionally been classed as ‘hard to reach’, such as young people.

United Utilities has led the way with its virtual exhibition of the HARP proposals, a 109km pipeline stretching from Cumbria to Greater Manchester, whilst other firms are using targeted Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter adverts to highlight specific good news stories or consultations they are undertaking.

Elsewhere, techniques such as social media listening and interest mapping are being used to ensure that communications are relevant to specific audiences, encouraging more meaningful engagement with customers and driving greater awareness of important work being undertaken locally, regionally and nationally.

The future of engagement is about being proactive, relevant, and timely. The days of silently providing services is over, doing good work is not enough, the utilities sector must now shout about it.

Read our report here

To find our more about our digital consultation services, contact Tom Morrison for more information.