Working for a small electric cooperative, Robert Raker wears many different hats.

Currently, as Manager of Communications and Public Relations for West River Electric Cooperative, Raker uses his technical background as a master electrician to effectively communicate complicated information to members.

“I never went to school for marketing or public relations,” Raker says. “While it wasn’t traditionally my background, my technical knowledge about electricity allows me to effectively speak about it to our members. At a small coop, you wear so many different hats that you become a jack of all trades.”

Robert Raker headshot for energy spotlight interview

Raker joined West River in 2008 as a marketing representative where he was tasked with “selling things that generate load,” specifically electric heat and water heaters. Now, the emphasis is on selling time-of-use (TOU) rate programs, opening the market for electric vehicles. For example, West River developed a residential EV rate with unlimited charging on nights and weekends for $30 per month. The goal of the program is to reduce the burden of EVs on the electric grid.

“Human nature takes a long time to change so you need to change it early and often,” Raker explains. “A flat rate of $30 takes away the unknown. Customers know what it’s going to cost to charge an EV. As long as members charge when the peak demand is low, we can keep it at a low price.”

Recently, Raker was responsible for communicating a three-month rate reduction to membership. Thanks in part to a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan during the coronavirus pandemic, West River was able to give members a lower rate for three months via a power cost adjustment.

“Early on when COVID-19 started, we were watching our energy sales decline as commercial businesses were scaling back,” Raker explains. “We applied for the PPP loan and got it. Fortunately, our sales didn’t plummet dramatically like we were anticipating. We ended up getting the loan forgiven, and that was a portion we were able to give back to our members.”

To reach members of all ages, Raker says it’s vital to communicate on multiple platforms. For older audiences, he utilizes Facebook and West River’s Cooperative Connections magazine. He also takes advantage of LinkedIn and Questline Digital eNewsletters to connect with Key Accounts customers, along with Instagram to connect with younger generations.

In the early days of social media, Raker says he remembers pitching Facebook to leadership and receiving initial resistance. He didn’t give up, and eventually, West River became an early adopter of Facebook. Fast forward to today, and he is once again communicating the benefits of a popular social media platform — this time with TikTok.

“We have younger members, and they won’t be reading an article in our magazine or coming to our annual meeting,” Raker explains. “We have to go where they are, and where are they? They’re on TikTok.”

As West River’s primary social media manager, Raker has been successful at building a presence on the trendy video-focused platform. In fact, one TikTok video received more than 1.1 million views. Other electric cooperatives are following West River’s lead and creating TikTok videos of their own.

When he’s not managing PR for West River, Raker is wearing yet another hat: law student. He is in his final year at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and hopes to use his degree to expand to other areas of the industry like legislative affairs. To break up the long days of working and studying, Raker takes advantage of the amazing mountain bike trails and skiing areas in western South Dakota.

Questline Digital connected with Raker to get his thoughts on impactful customer campaigns, connecting with younger generations and the changes he foresees in the industry.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry?

I started as an apprentice electrician for a local electrical contractor, and I worked with utilities to provide services to both homes and businesses. I eventually worked my way up to journeyman and master electrician, while keeping my eye open for opportunities to get my foot in the door of a utility.

In 2008, I got the chance as a marketing representative. I have since furthered my education while working at the co-op. I’m currently in my final year of law school, all while working full-time for West River Electric Cooperative.

What has changed the most about your job in the utility industry over the course of your career?

When I started, my time was primarily spent selling products to promote load growth, for example water heaters and electric heat. Today, we are still focused on load growth, except now we emphasize using the energy at the right time. This means pushing demand response and dusting off the old time-of-use (TOU) rates. As for the technology, West River Electric Coop has had its TWACS AMI system since the early 2000s. That is what I learned on, so I don’t know any different.

The major changes in technology that I have seen relate to the way we communicate with our membership. There is so much “noise” in people’s lives, we are forced to meet them where they are, and that requires different platforms. We have our monthly magazine that we have always had, but we now have Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and, most recently, TikTok. We leverage Questline Digital for our commercial accounts and use the content on our LinkedIn page. Our co-op is experiencing exponential growth, and we must try and squeeze out more with less. That’s why we need to use content across multiple platforms.

What excites you the most about the energy utility space? 

The canned answer is the changes and challenges ahead. I’m excited about the future changes, but more specifically, the new workforce that is replacing those retiring. We (those in the utility industry) are standing on the shoulders of giants, and they are definitely giving up something that is better than when they took over. So, now it is the younger generation’s turn to do the same thing. These new leaders come with a different perspective, and it will be exciting to see what that looks like. I use the analogy of a puzzle that lost the lid. I don’t know what the picture is going to be, but my job is to just keep trying to put the pieces together.

What campaign or initiative are you most proud of?

We recently lowered our rate for three months to return margins back to the membership via power cost adjustment. In a time when prices are going up, and many utilities are trying to recover costs from last February’s cold spell, we are returning money back to the membership. This demonstrates good management and the power of sticking together. It also makes for a high open rate in your email. 

What’s a marketing campaign you wish you’d thought of (inside or outside the energy industry)?

The Budweiser “Wassup?” campaign because it was very catchy. I can appreciate how it focused on a specific demographic using a common platform, TV. Target marketing is nothing new, but we can get more granular and precise with our messaging now.

What is the hardest part of working in the energy industry today?

Keeping up with the growth and changes. The industry has some of the brightest people working in it, but it needs more. Another part is showing the true value of electricity because it is human nature to expect things like electricity. Today, our members expect uninterrupted service and instant notifications.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t working in the utility industry, I would be…

A self-employed electrician/building contractor. I enjoy putting in hard work, and the real estate market is rewarding and lucrative. Homeowners deserve a quality and sustainable product. A house is typically someone’s largest purchase, and contractors work very hard for their money. 

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years?

The world of energy will become more known, transparent and open because of peer-to-peer energy trading and artificial intelligence. We will have consumers and producers in one, known as “Prosumers.” Energy will be transferred and sold via artificial intelligence and electric utilities will be more service oriented. “Prosumers” will value electricity and energy because they are a potential revenue stream.

On a side note, they have always been a potential revenue stream, but we don’t often view it that way. However, the older generation does because they have gone without it before. We will experience that same shift in perspective in the future because of the options that are available to anyone connected to the grid.

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space? 

First, make your bed in the morning to start the day off with a win. Next, read “Who Moved My Cheese,” become a lifelong learner and be OK with being surrounded by smart people. The utility space is full of smart people, and it is OK to not be the smartest person. In fact, if you are the smartest person in the room than you are in the wrong room. Finally, put your head down, work hard and appreciate the small wins because the utility space doesn’t always change fast, but it will be worth it.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.

After 27 years at Silicon Valley Power, Mary Medeiros McEnroe has experienced some major changes in California’s utility landscape. Throughout her career, she has made it her mission to help customers every step of the way.

Medeiros McEnroe worked with business customers to prevent rolling blackouts during the Western U.S. energy crisis of 2000 and 2001. Later that decade, she helped launch the utility’s first social media accounts. More recently, she provided proactive communications to prepare customers for the possibility of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, a safety procedure that turns off power in the case of wildfires and other natural disasters. Now, as Public Benefits Program Manager, Medeiros McEnroe makes a positive impact on residents and local businesses in Santa Clara through energy efficiency programs.

A big part of her job is building relationships with business customers, trade allies and other community partners. To learn more about the needs of customers, specifically larger C&I companies, Silicon Valley Power holds energy task force meetings at least once per year. According to Medeiros McEnroe, these conversations are essential to better serve businesses.

Headshot of Mary Medeiros McEnroe

“Customers aren’t shy about providing feedback,” Medeiros McEnroe says. “We survey them after participation in our programs to gather information on what’s working and what isn’t. We also talk to contractors and trade allies and see what they’re hearing from customers, especially in areas where we aren’t getting a lot of participation.”

Medeiros McEnroe also focuses on building relationships with third party companies that work with local businesses to achieve energy efficiency goals. For example, Efficiency Services Group proposed an external lighting program that would provide fixtures to area businesses free of charge — the businesses were only responsible for the installation cost. Initially, there were a few business customers who didn’t have the resources to move forward with the installation. Much to the surprise of Medeiros McEnroe, Efficiency Services Group worked on several projects at no cost to the customer to ensure these businesses could take advantage of the program.

“They were really invested in our community and wanted to have a positive impact,” Medeiros McEnroe explains. “The fact that we had this relationship and they felt a tie to our community is what made this happen. That’s why it’s so important to develop relationships with those who are serving your customers.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Medeiros McEnroe helped create an energy efficiency program to ease the financial burden for struggling small businesses in the utility’s service territory. She designed and launched the utility’s Energy Efficiency Grant Program for Small Businesses to help fund energy efficiency upgrades. Silicon Valley Power committed $1 million to the program, which launched in the summer of 2020.

“I get a lot of job satisfaction with being able to help customers, even if it’s just one customer,” Medeiros McEnroe says. “I had phone conversations with some of the program participants and they shared with me what they had been going through during the pandemic. It meant a lot to hear how thankful they were for the program and how much it helped their business.”

When she’s not making a positive impact on local businesses, you’ll find Medeiros McEnroe on an airplane, both as a passenger and pilot. In 2017, she received her private pilot’s certificate. Combining her two passions of flying and giving back, Medeiros McEnroe volunteers with Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit that assists with animal transportation. She transports dogs in need to foster and forever homes across California.

Questline Digital spoke with Medeiros McEnroe to get her views on changes in the utility industry, creating successful energy efficiency programs and building relationships with business customers.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry? 

This was an accidental career for me. I worked in the utility billing department in customer service while in college and decided to stay on as I went through an MBA program to obtain my master’s degree. My master’s thesis project was to write a strategic plan for an organization, and I selected our municipal electric utility because I had access to people at lunch and could run ideas by them. This was at the time that California was getting ready to launch deregulation and the industry was changing quickly.

Following my master’s program, I moved into an account management role at the utility. In 2007, I made the move to managing our energy programs and working on the outreach for these programs, as well as managing the utility’s social media accounts.

What has changed the most about your job working in the utility industry over the course of your career? 

I’ve held four different roles within the utility, but all have been focused on helping customers in one way or another. I’ve been through the energy crisis in California that resulted in rolling blackouts and economic downturn, as well as the dot-com bust that resulted in a lot of vacancies. At that point, my role turned toward economic development and bringing new businesses into the city.

When I moved into managing programs, we ran energy efficiency, renewable energy, low income and R&D programs. With changes in legislation, that has expanded into building and transportation electrification programs as well. Legislative changes have also resulted in a lot more state-mandated reporting and other requirements.

In California, we are also now facing wildfire issues and system constraints during peak days, which has brought about Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) and brought back rotating outages. While our customers haven’t been impacted by the PSPS events, it has brought about a lot of communication via social media to explain what is happening as the state or region is impacted by events that may not impact our customers. Social media has really grown for us as a great way to have two-way dialogue with our customers, especially during a power outage. 

What excites you the most about the energy utility space? 

This is an exciting time to be working in the electric industry. Throughout my 27 years, the industry has been constantly changing. When I was in high school and my early college years, I never would have considered the energy industry as the place I would end up, but I’m glad it worked out this way. We constantly get to work on new things, especially at a small municipal utility where we each can wear many hats. That variety keeps things interesting. I also love being able to help customers. Designing and implementing programs that truly make a difference to our customers is really fulfilling. 

What campaign or initiative are you most proud of?

When the pandemic hit, it really impacted our small business community and I wanted to find a way that we could help. I came up with the idea to offer an energy efficiency grant up to $10,000 for small businesses impacted by the mandate to close or significantly reduce their operations. We were able to pull this together and launch it in just a few months and then began extensive outreach. We did a direct mail postcard, direct mail flyer, social media campaign and ads on our local cable channel, along with door-to-door outreach. We also trained our trade ally contractors on the program and provided them with marketing materials.

My goal for the program was to reduce the ongoing costs of small businesses through energy efficiency as well as help to support the contractors in continuing to work and avoiding layoffs. We need those contractors to be there for our programs in the future, so it was important to support not only the local businesses, but also those who serve them through our programs. We recently won an award for this program through the California Municipal Utilities Association.

What is the hardest part of working in the energy industry today? 

The hardest part of working in the energy industry today is keeping up with all the changes that are happening. There is so much to monitor now — changes to legislation and regulation, reporting requirements, emerging technologies, new program ideas, ways to use data analytics, etc. There are so many opportunities out there and with a small staff, we can’t do everything we would like to do. We have to prioritize what would have the biggest benefits to our customers and the utility and what will help the city meet its Climate Action Plan goals. 

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t working in the utility industry, I would be… 

If money were no object and I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills, I would love to do something that involves travel. I love seeing the world and experiencing new places and cultures. Perhaps I would be a travel blogger or lead small tour groups through foreign countries to see the highlights and explore some of the off-the-beaten-path places.

I also love to fly and have my private pilot certificate. I love sharing the experience with people and taking them up for their first flight in a small plane. It would be fun to operate “flightseeing” tours of beautiful places, like the San Francisco Bay or up in the Pacific Northwest. I’m considering a seaplane rating in the future, so maybe you’ll find me operating a charter for backcountry flights to remote areas where we can land on lakes. 

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years?

I think the pace of change is going to continue to get faster and the lines between traditional utilities and third parties will continue to blur. From a program standpoint, we will continue to have a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, but we will increase our efforts around building and transportation electrification, energy storage and microgrids.

We need to continue to find ways to work with customers to meet their needs as they adopt new technologies and strive to achieve their own sustainability goals. We also will be working toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing constraints on transmission, distribution and generation resources. I’m looking forward to all the opportunities these challenges bring to allow us to try new things and develop new programs. Change is what has kept my career in the utility industry interesting for so many years! 

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space? 

I would advise people entering the industry to remember that although utilities are mostly regulated, we still need to think of customers as if they have a choice. This means designing our programs and services with their needs in mind. We need to find ways to work with them to provide the programs and services that they need while balancing the impacts on our utility grid and other customers.

I’d advise people entering the industry to be open to thinking outside the box and partnering with customers and third parties on pilot projects and programs. I would also advise everyone in the industry to try new things and be willing to fail. We learn something with each failure and can then take what we learned to create something even better.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.

Natasha Contreras is the epitome of a jack of all trades, having held roles on multiple teams at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) including IT, project management and marketing. Currently EV Customer Engagement Manager for the utility, Contreras now focuses her efforts on educating the community on going electric.

Contreras joined SDG&E straight out of college. What began as an interim position as a contractor became a full-time opportunity as Contreras volunteered for new initiatives and moved her way up the company. She worked in project management for her first five years before moving into her marketing role to promote clean transportation.

Headshot photo of Natasha Contreras for Energy Spotlight interview

“Utilities are a little bit slower on the uptake picking up some of the systems because everything that we do is so compliance-focused, we’re highly regulated and there are so many privacy concerns,” Contreras explains. “So, it takes a little longer for us to catch up to some of those types of technology, but I think that’s helped me to learn holistically how the utility industry functions.”

When she joined the clean transportation team, the group consisted of 12 people. Now, she says, the evolution has been incredible, growing to over 30 people with Contreras managing a team of 12.

It’s been four years since Contreras started with the team. She says their priorities are two-fold:

  1. Educate customers of the benefits of electric vehicles, and
  2. Educate customers on the utility’s role as a facilitator and advisor.

Contreras has been accomplishing this through their LOVELECTRIC campaign, which is designed to break myths about EVs through educational materials for customers, dealerships and charging providers.

Contreras’ team is also focused on ensuring equitable opportunities for their customers. They are dedicated to sharing resources about funding and grants and ensuring their materials are easy to understand for all customers, including adding multilingual resources to accommodate the large Spanish-speaking population in San Diego. Contreras herself was born in Russia and moved to the United States at 10 years old. Russian is her first language, so she uses that as a guide to make sure the materials they create are universally understood.

In addition, Contreras’ work includes outreach both in-person and virtually to connect with customers about EVs. Before the pandemic, they hosted 75 events a year to allow people to test drive EVs and ask questions. As the pandemic took its toll, those events dropped to zero. Instead of pushing people to buy EVs, Contreras and her team shifted their messaging to concentrate on customers who were currently driving an EV or planned to buy one.

Although it wasn’t her first choice for work, Contreras has grown to love working in the utility industry. “I by chance ended up in the clean transportation group. I didn’t come into this group with a passion for environmental justice and getting more EVs in the world,” she says. “But now, to me, I have the best job in the world. I get to be creative every day and work with so many interesting dealers and groups of people, getting to do all these fun things to educate the community about EVs. My passion is being creative and that’s exactly what I get to do here.”

Outside of work, Contreras enjoys traveling and staying active, hiking trails or visiting the beach with her two Yorkies, Chloe and Celine.

Questline Digital spoke with Contreras to get her thoughts on innovative ways to connect with customers, changes in the utility industry and thought-provoking marketing campaigns.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry?

I graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Marketing and Communications during the recession, in 2009. My dreams of going into advertising and living out my full Mad Men life were quickly brought to reality with the lack of work availability.

I started my role at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) thinking it was an interim position — something to hold me over while the market picked back up and the marketing agencies started hiring again. I distinctly remember onboarding in my first role at the company, as a Business Systems Analyst, and talking to my coworkers that referred to themselves as “lifers.” I thought to myself, there’s no way that’s going to be me — I couldn’t fathom staying at the same company for any longer than just a few years.

Well, since then, the economy picked up, and then crashed again (a few times, at that). I had plenty of opportunities to move on to other companies, but I chose to pave my own pathway at SDG&E, volunteering for different projects and initiatives. Twelve years later, I am still here, and I can truly say, I love what I do.

What has changed the most about your job working in the utility industry over the course of your career?

I feel like a lot has changed since I started working at the utility over a decade ago. Perhaps it was because I was inexperienced and green, but the thought of working for a gas and electric company back then didn’t seem very exciting. It is fascinating to think back over the last 10 years or so and observe the progress that has been made. While the priority for the company remains to be clean, safe and reliable, the concept of innovation and technology has certainly dominated my sphere as time went on.

One of the things I love most about working for a company of this size is that there are so many opportunities to broaden your skill sets in various areas. While my passion has always revolved around the creative space, I found ways to incorporate those talents into my day-to-day work.

Through the years, I transitioned between the IT space, to project management, to business process to change management, and finally landed where I am today — the clean transportation space, where I thrive from coming up with creative ideas on how to engage with our customers and generate awareness about the benefits of driving electric.

What excites you the most about the energy utility space?

The endless opportunities! I work for a group that is truly on the brink of the next frontier. We are changing the way people travel! I couldn’t think of anything more exciting.

Change is frightening and it’s happening quickly. I lead a team of passionate individuals, tasked with the vision to reimagine transportation. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with the new technologies that are coming to the market. We have made it our goal to be our customers’ trusted advisor. To take the overwhelming amount of information about the available clean transportation options and condense them down to something that is easily digestible.

I also love the opportunities to network with so many other companies and individuals in this industry. Whether it’s checking out the newest EV models that are coming to the market or learning about new innovative charging methods that can dispatch excess energy back to the grid, I feel like I learn something new every single day, and I love knowing that I’m not going to get bored at work any time soon.

What campaign or initiative are you most proud of?

I can honestly say that our current LOVELECTRIC campaign is what I’m most proud of so far in my career. It’s relatable, empathetic and funny. We are in the business of myth-busting. Driving electric — what’s not to love? No more oil changes. No more worrying about rising gas prices. Smooth rides and sounds of silence. How many more reasons do you need?

We’re teaching our customers that they can help save the environment and experience the thrill of clean living when they drive an electric vehicle. Falling in love has never been easier. It’s time to LOVELECTRIC.

What’s a marketing campaign you wish you’d thought of (inside or outside the energy industry)?

There are so many good ones! I love watching the Super Bowl every year solely for the commercials. I tend to lean toward humor, and to me, GEICO always knocks it out of the park and I find myself laughing out loud. On the same token, this Orbit Gum commercial was hilarious and definitely got my attention.

Probably the most relevant example I can think of was the Audi e-tron campaign from 2018. They were one of the first OEMs to make a strong push for EVs in the mass media and I definitely found myself pulling ideas for our own campaign from their “myth-busting” strategy.

What is the hardest part of working in the energy industry today?

The energy industry has definitely evolved over the last decade and turned into an innovative technology space. It’s exciting to see what the Elon Musks of the world are coming up with to push the needle.

That said, one of the hardest parts of working in this industry today is keeping the balance between the possibilities of the future and the reliability of the day-to-day operations. The impacts of the pandemic have taken a toll on almost every industry over the last two years, and the energy industry is no exception. We have to stay mindful in our messaging — continue to innovate while ensuring that all our customers have equitable access to our offerings.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t working in the utility industry, I would be…

Doing my same job anywhere. While I mentioned above that I have truly come to love working for the utility, at my core, my passion is being creative. And I feel like I can transfer this skill set to any industry. Marketing, communications and project management are universal skills — you just have to find something that excites you!

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years?

There are so many exciting things on the horizon! New technologies are paving the way to a more efficient, sustainable future. I’m looking forward to the next few decades — to a time when pumping gas will be the anomaly rather than driving electric, and to cool concepts like autonomous electric vehicles that will be charged wirelessly.

I love the feasibility of connecting and building partnerships with contacts across the country, and at this point, the whole world. The virtual environment has given everyone access to network with whoever we want, and I anticipate that we are going to continue finding efficiencies and developing the industry quicker.

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space?

My advice is to have an open mind. The possibilities are endless. I don’t think I would have considered the utility to be an innovative technology company back when I was first starting. But that has changed, and my eyes have been opened to think big and constantly pitch new ideas, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Just because something has been done one way forever, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.

With a background in broadcast news, Todd Long has made it his mission to transform Huntsville Utilities into a valuable information source for customers. As Electronic Content Administrator, Long has taken a customer-centric approach to every communication, whether social media posts, news releases or episodes of the utility’s award-winning YouTube show.

“My very first job in television was writing news topicals, which promoted the stories of the day,” he recals. “I’d always ask the producers, ‘Tell me the story that has the most benefit to viewers.’ It’s the same approach I use here. I’m always looking to share useful information that will provide the most value to our customers.”

Headshot of Todd Long energy spotlight

Long and his team recently received the award for Most Creative Social Media Campaign at E Source Forum for Huntsville Utilities Television (HUTV). The show provides a lighthearted approach to important energy topics. While the show began as a Facebook Live every Friday, he explains, it proved too difficult to produce live during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team now creates weekly episodes in a pre-recorded format.

“My wheelhouse is producing for television, so I automatically default to shooting video, editing video or writing for video,” Long says. “I’ve turned this skill into an added bonus in my work here.”

In addition to his passion for video, Long understands the power of social media as a customer engagement tool. When he came to Huntsville Utilities nearly five years ago, they were only using social media for power outage updates. Since taking the helm, Long has grown the utility’s social media presence by sharing educational yet entertaining tips, need-to-know resources and heartfelt stories that humanize the utility. This has led to considerable growth on all digital platforms.

“The biggest thing that I tell people is to treat social media with the seriousness it deserves,” he explains. “In fact, 57% of people will go to a digital platform first if they want to make contact with your company. And the time of day doesn’t mean anything to your customers. They assume, ‘If I’m on social media right now, my utility should be too.’”

Most people only think about their energy utility when there is a power outage or when they receive their energy bill. That’s why Long focuses communications on being a helpful resource to customers, while also entertaining them. “I just like to have fun, laugh and make other people laugh,” he says. “If I can combine all of these things and get paid for it, what could be better than that?”

Along with the fun content on social media, he is also focused on educating customers on the realities of the utility industry and what it takes to keep their power on. “During an outage, our lineworkers aren’t just sitting around waiting for it to stop raining,” Long explains. “They are out in the storm risking serious injury or worse to get your power back on. I think showing this side of utility work has made a big impact.”

Questline Digital spoke with Long to get his thoughts on innovative ways to reach utility customers, changes in the industry and the essential role of social media.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry?

I ended up in it by chance. I’ve been in marketing and communications for just over 20 years. I was trained as a videographer and worked in an advertising agency straight out of college. I was eventually hired away by the CBS affiliate in the city where I lived, where they used me in their marketing and promotions department to produce what are known as “topicals.” These are the short commercials you see on network TV telling you why you should watch that station’s upcoming newscast. While that’s a very specific type of marketing, I’ve found the basic strategies behind it cross over into what I currently do in my work for the utility industry.

I continued doing this type of work for TV stations across the country, including Phoenix, Arizona, and Omaha, Nebraska, before finally settling in Huntsville, Alabama. It was at that point I decided to get out of broadcasting and move into something else, as the broadcast TV industry was struggling much like newspapers at the start of the internet age. 

After working for a defense contractor, being a freelancer and one last broadcasting gig, I learned of a new position being created at Huntsville Utilities for someone who would oversee all forms of digital communication, primarily social media. I applied for the job, not knowing they already had an internal candidate lined up. They changed their minds after my interview and, fortunately for me, here I sit. (Don’t worry, they found a different full-time job for the other guy.)

What has changed the most about your job working in the utility industry over the course of your career?

I’ve only been in the utility industry for about five years, so I wouldn’t say a lot has changed there. However, having been a communications professional for over 20 years, the biggest change — and it impacts all industries — has been the rise (and importance) of social media.

I have a presentation I give at webinars and conferences that discusses why (and I firmly believe this) your company’s social media presence is the most important thing your communications team is doing. The immediacy. The size of the audience. The low cost of use. The give and take with the customers. It’s completely redefined how utilities — or any company — communicate with customers.

Of course, something that important has to be used properly, and it bothered me when I would see a utility company that was basically taking the approach of, “Oh, social media is just a young person’s thing. Have an intern take care of it, and we’ll check it off the list.”

What excites you the most about the energy utility space? 

Being able to teach people more about it. When I first came on board at Huntsville Utilities, I spent so much time just doing research and asking questions, trying to learn as much as I could about what it takes to have this amazing infrastructure we have.

Now I get to pass that information along to our customers. So many people — myself included, before I joined the company — just take this for granted. Flip the switch, you’ve got light. Turn on the tap, there’s the water. Turn on the heater, the gas heats your home. But there’s just so much more to it than that. These people who work out in the field risk injury or worse every day. But if they didn’t do that, our society would degrade into something out of “The Walking Dead” pretty much overnight. The pandemic helped people realize that a lot more, I think.

What campaign or initiative are you most proud of?
We produce a weekly (well, when our schedule allows, it’s weekly) web show called HUTV: Huntsville Utilities Television. We take a serious, beneficial topic (how to prepare your home for winter, how to avoid utility scams, etc.) and “sandwich it in silliness.” Last month, we received the “Most Creative Social Media Campaign” award for it at the annual E Source Forum. You can check it out on our YouTube channel.

What’s a marketing campaign you wish you’d thought of (inside or outside the energy industry)?

Many years ago, there was a product called “Head On,” which was a rub-on headache remedy. The spots were just a guy saying, “Head On: Apply directly to the forehead” over and over again. Simple, but people remembered it.

What is the hardest part of working in the energy industry today? 
We’re a target. Some people just aren’t going to understand what it takes to provide them with electricity, water and natural gas. To them, we’re just the big building downtown that wants a check every month. Even though Huntsville Utilities literally has some of the lowest rates in the nation, we have customers who will still say they’re paying too much. And you can’t change their minds because they don’t want their minds to be changed.

There are a lot of people in this country who are just angry, and in a twisted way, being angry is what makes them happy. Social media has given them an outlet for that.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t working in the utility industry, I would be…

Still in communications/PR/advertising, but not in sales. I did that for a while and hated it. I definitely wouldn’t be having as much fun in life as I’m having now. I work with a great group of people and we’re all friends outside of work as well. I’ve had other companies contact me and ask me to consider working for them, but I always just tell them “No, thank you.” I’m having too much fun where I’m at.

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years?

Obviously, the discussion of climate change will continue. We’re a natural gas provider at Huntsville Utilities as well, but we don’t see too much of the anti-natural gas talk you see in other parts of the country. In fact, we have a waiting list for people who want it hooked up in their homes. We can’t get the pipe laid fast enough to keep up. Every now and then, someone will chime in with some “leave it in the ground” talk, but our customers tend to rally to the defense of natural gas.

Huntsville Utilities doesn’t generate electricity, we just purchase it from TVA as a distributor. But we do work closely with TVA and other organizations on projects involving renewable energy and long-term storage.

I also think we’re on the verge of a sudden, big jump in electric vehicle adoption. That’s what I’m looking forward to, and we’re starting to see it in Huntsville. I know I (personally) am tired of paying $3 per gallon.

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space?

Like any job, it’s not for everyone. I’m fortunate in that I ended up at a forward-thinking company that allows me to try new things and be out on the fringes a bit. The great thing about the utility industry is that while it’s going through changes, it will still always be around in some form or fashion.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.