Effective Public Relations for Solar Companies

For the solar industry, the sea of public opinion is not always a calm place. Solar is a maturing market shaped by shifting elements—incentives, utility regulations, tariffs, policies, cost pressures, technology, financing options and infrastructure capabilities. An effective public relations (PR) strategy is key to successfully navigating the ebbs and flows of the market, and staying relevant within it.

The goal of this article is to define what constitutes an effective PR strategy and to identify the optimal approach, the available tools and the most effective ways to engage with an audience. Companies often neglect PR, shelving it until they want coverage when they have a new product, reach a milestone or hire an executive. However, the practice of PR is about maintaining an authentic dialogue with stakeholders and specific audiences.

Purpose and Value of PR

In 2011, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) initiated a crowdsourcing campaign of PR professionals seeking a modern definition of PR: the “Public Relations Defined” initiative. After soliciting industry input and holding a public vote, the PRSA announced that the profession’s preferred definition of PR is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Let us unpack this definition a bit to understand what it is truly saying. First, it negates the idea that PR is a one-sided, top-down interaction in which a company or entity controls the conversation. Yes, there is strategy involved, but PR is “a communication process.” Second, it addresses the fact that PR is interactive and should build “mutually beneficial relationships” between an organization and its relevant audiences.

Note that the PRSA definition emphasizes audience engagement and establishing relationships. This is an important distinction: PR is not about standing on a soapbox and pushing an agenda on your audiences. Rather, it should focus on fostering and facilitating two-way communications between a company and other constituent communities (customers, media, government, industry stakeholders, employees and so forth). Marketing and sales are avenues for pushing a more obvious agenda such as lead generation and customer acquisition.

Many different stakeholders come into play within PR: the PR professional, the company leadership, the journalist and the public. The dynamic gets messy when the first two cease to consider the latter two. PR is about building a mutually beneficial relationship with the public, not about viewing journalists as another avenue for turning readers into leads.

Gil Jenkins is the vice president of OgilvyEarth, a collection of sustainability experts within the larger Ogilvy & Mather communications and marketing network. Jenkins notes: “There’s a tendency to view every PR activity through the prism of lead generation. Ultimately, PR must drive sales, but this strict mindset stifles creativity and inhibits thought leadership opportunities that build long-term reputation and value for the brand. The solar industry is doing very well right now, but as it becomes more mainstream, companies will need to find their own voice amongst the clutter. Sometimes that means bucking the standard industry viewpoint. A good example of that is what Sunnova did when their CEO wrote to Congress last year urging them to let the tax credits expire.”

Who does PR? If a company chooses to perform PR tasks in-house, someone with a communications title or a marketing title or both (referred to as marcom) usually takes on these activities. In this context, communications is simply a more inclusive way to describe the full breadth of PR responsibilities, as people tend to equate PR specifically with media relations. In many companies, the same team is often responsible for both marketing and communications due to the inherent crossover associated with these duties and activities.

It is very common for companies to partner with an external PR contractor or agency. Many agencies offer marketing, branding, website, advertising and PR services, making it easy to streamline these initiatives if desired. Working with external PR professionals can be valuable at any stage during a company’s growth, depending on the company’s goals. For example, established companies may need help to focus PR on particular markets where growth is slower or to improve brand perception. A smaller company might need expert staff to establish credibility and educate the market on its products.

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