By Robert Rivard
Technology companies were the first to pioneer the new media strategy of telling their own stories. Sensing their own power to reach audiences without intermediaries, tech companies hired in-house bloggers, visual storytellers and others who, in effect, cover their own companies. Think of businesses with their own newsrooms. Rackspace, for example, has a high-profile media team that produces blogs, videos, stories and more that can be found at The Rackspace Blog! & Newsroom. The Rivard Report has featured work produced independently by at least two of those Rackers, Garrett Heath and Dave Sims. The company’s highest profile blogger, Robert Scoble, lives in the Silicon Valley and enjoys the kind of virtual following normally reserved for rock stars.
It’s no secret that the independent tech media often get story leads and news tips by following these in-house storytellers and communicators. In a time when the mainstream media has shed tens of thousands of newsroom jobs, companies are no longer waiting for someone else to tell their story because it just might not get told. They are telling it themselves in a wired world where social media makes it easy to push out a steady stream of news to stakeholders, investors, other bloggers and the general public.
USAA is well-known in corporate circles for its considerable media and communications staff and assets. When the company deploys on behalf of members in the wake of an event such as Hurricane Isaac, the company also dispatches storytellers who send back stories, photographs and videos chronicling human interest stories for the website. Natural disasters used to be the exclusive turf of newspaper and television reporters, but no longer.
USAA’s Inside the Mission Blog typifies the kind of content, all promoted via social media, that goes beyond reporting company news and serves as sort of information clearinghouse for veterans, their families and members. The USAA blog offers advice on everything from preparing to send your kids to college to figuring out if your vehicle needs a brake job.
H-E-B goes beyond the standard corporate fare on its website, highlighting the company’s well-known efforts to promote excellent education for all, and its growing efforts in the realm of nutrition and wellness. The company’s Healthy at H-E-B page is built around six words: “Eat better. Move more. Live well.” A few years ago, readers would have had to visit multiple government websites to collect the kind of nutrition news packaged in one convenient place for consumers. Obviously, that kind of customer service is good business.
CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby Jr. launched his own personal blog and Facebook page some months ago to speak directly to employees, ratepayers and the broader community in an effort to tell stories that he believed were going untold. CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipal electric utility, yet no longer has a single print or broadcast reporter assigned to cover it as a principal news beat. Now the Beneby blog has evolved into the CPS Energy Blog and is being written by former Express-News energy reporter Tracy Idell Hamilton.
I first met Hamilton when I was the Express-News editor and she was a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I literally challenged her to successfully crash a black tie awards dinner to gauge her reportorial chops. She and a friend somehow found evening gowns and conned their way inside. We subsequently offered both of them jobs. Hamilton came to San Antonio. The other student went to the Miami Herald. CPS gets a proven pro.
The text of her first posting today is reprinted here with permission. The Rivard Report is interested in other innovative communication strategies taking shape at San Antonio companies and institutions. Like we said, done well, good in-house reporting gets picked up by other media and redistributed to an even larger audience. Read Hamilton’s comprehensive CPS story and you’ll sound like an expert at your next dinner party when the conversation turns to energy.
(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group, which publishes the Rivard Report, has consulted with CPS Energy on communications issues, a fact that was inadvertently not disclosed at the time of this article’s publication, contrary to Rivard Report policy. This note was added on September 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.)
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By Tracy Idell Hamilton
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Mayor Julian Castro highlighted San Antonio’s strong and growing economy on the national stage Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention. The Alamo City ranked number one on the Milken Institute’s list of top performing cities in the nation last year, he noted, and current efforts to expand educational opportunities for the city’s four-year-olds will help “young minds today to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”
San Antonio is positioning itself as a leader in the global economy in part through a laser-focus on new energy opportunities. CPS Energy is largely driving that growth, thanks to a series of policy decisions made by CEO Doyle Beneby, based on a vision developed by the utility’s Board of Trustees and dovetailing with Castro’s initiatives.
New investments in natural gas, solar power and energy management technology have created jobs and brought new capital investment to San Antonio, further diversifying the utility’s fuel mix and keeping costs downwhile also reducing emissions.
CPS Energy has been lauded for its efforts by environmental and community groups, but Wall Street has also taken notice. In July, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s AA-rated Power Index ranked CPS Energy number one for its “exceptionally solid credit fundamentals.”
The report highlights the utility’s “progressive management,” and its increased investment in renewable energy, which helps make CPS Energy’s fuel mix “extremely well diversified.” According to the investment house’s most recent review, CPS Energy “is by far the premiere credit in the sector.”
Beneby, who came to CPS Energy from Exelon Power in July 2010, made a crucial decision early on to redirect a half a billion dollars from the utility’s budget by shuttering two aging coal plants by 2018. Given the likelihood of stricter environmental regulations on the horizon, Beneby saw the massive costs for upgrades as money that could be better spent further diversifying CPS Energy’s fuel mix to cleaner and less costly sources.
That decision allowed Beneby to reduce the amount of a rate increase the utility had planned to request. Since then, thanks to additional streamlining and cost cutting, Beneby has delayed the request to the City Council until at least 2013.
This year, he announced that the coal power would be replaced by cleaner-burning natural gas. Taking advantage of historically low natural gas prices, fueled by the stratospheric growth in domestic natural gas production, CPS Energy purchased the 800MW Rio Nogales combined-cycle natural gas plant in Seguin.
Replacing old coal power with natural gas will reduce CPS Energy’s overall emissions, which are already held down by its 1,088MW of carbon-free nuclear generation from the South Texas Project. This chart shows how CPS Energy’s generation capacity will have shifted away from coal and toward cleaner burning natural gas and renewables by 2020.
Not long after Beneby decided to close the utility’s oldest coal plants, he made another critical policy change, one which would add a strong economic development component to the utility’s trajectory. Companies seeking to do business with CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned electric and gas company in the nation, would be expected to invest in the community, in the form of job creation, capital and educational investments.
CPS Energy announced partnerships with five clean energy companies in the wake of the new policy:
- Consert, a home energy management company, relocated its headquarters from Raleigh, North Carolina. It moved 20 jobs here, has hired another 35 people, and has more positions posted. Perhaps even more importantly, Consert’s load management technology could help keep the lights on in Texas.
- Green Star, an LED lighting company, has created 49 jobs thus far, and is poised to expand its reach dramatically: in February, it inked a deal with lighting giant Toshiba.
- Cold Car USA manufactures refrigerated truck bodies that use electricity rather than traditional gas or diesel motors to run the cooling compressors. The company is currently scouting locations for a new manufacturing plant in San Antonio, after quickly outgrowing its originally-proposed location.
- SunEdison recently completed two new solar farms in San Antonio, 19.8 MW on land at the San Antonio Water System¿s Dos Rios Water Recycling Center,another 10 MW in nearby Somerset. As part of the deal, SunEdison contributed $300,000 to scholarships for students at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Alamo Colleges, and $100,000 to the Somerset Independent School District Foundation. The additions brings CPS Energy’s solar portfolio to nearly 45 MW, or enough to power 6,400 homes in San Antonio on hot summer afternoons.
- Summit Power Group’s Texas Clean Energy Project, to be built west of Odessa, will incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in a first-of-its-kind commercial clean coal power plant. CPS Energy, which in 2009 completed Spruce 2, likely the cleanest-burning coal plant in the country, has agreed buy 200 MW of Summit’s clean coal power, further reducing the utility’s emissions. Summit has agreed to open a satellite office in San Antonio.
In July, CPS Energy finalized details on its most ambitious project to date, one that will have permanent, far reaching consequences for San Antonio¿s economy and environment. South Korea’s OCI Solar will build 400 MW of solar power in the San Antonio region, which CPS Energy has agreed to buy for 25 years. In addition, the company has agreed to create 800-plus jobs with an annual payroll of $40 million by locating both its corporate headquarters and solar component manufacturing operations here — with an estimated annual economic impact to San Antonio of $700 million.
Taken together, the new energy companies working with CPS Energy have committed to creating more than 1,000 new jobs by 2017, with an estimated overall economic impact of almost $1 billion. These investments are the result of dollars CPS Energy would have spent anyway. Instead of doubling down on the old ways of creating power, CPS has decided instead to reduce pollutants, invest in new technology, recruit technology expertise to San Antonio and create jobs.
As Castro said Tuesday night, “Opportunity today, prosperity tomorrow.”
You can follow Tracy Idell Hamilton on Twitter at @tracyihamilton.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.