From Obligation to Opportunity: The Broad Benefits of Engaging the Public in Natural Gas Safety

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires pipeline owners and operators to educate key stakeholders about pipeline operations, damage prevention, and leak recognition and response. With 2.5 million miles of local utility distribution and transmission pipelines serving more than 177 million Americans, utilities have an opportunity to leverage PHMSA requirements to engage a broad group of stakeholders in ways that build trust, maintain operational integrity, and enhance regulatory and community relationships.[1] When natural gas utilities strategically leverage their public safety education programs, they find themselves also investing in a cost-effective operational safety initiative.

Big investments, bigger risk

The industry continues to make significant investments each year to repair and modernize the United States’ aging natural gas infrastructure. In fact, a recent American Gas Association (AGA) Playbook reported that annual industry expenditures for enhancing distribution and transmission totaled $24 billion. With some infrastructure nearly a century old, these investments are critical. At the same time, incidents resulting in damage to pipelines continue to increase. The Common Ground Alliance’s (CGA) Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) estimates that 439,000 excavation-related damages occurred in 2017, reflecting a 5.5 percent increase over 2016.

As a result, utilities are looking more closely at how they can enhance their public safety education and awareness programs. While estimates vary considerably regarding how much the industry spends on public safety awareness and education, experts agree these expenditures are a drop in the bucket compared to capital investments. The good news is that investments in these efforts are now often considered a vital part of any pipeline capital investment program. The evidence is clear: effective public education contributes to damage prevention, leak recognition, and system security and integrity. Pipeline Public Awareness is more than simply a mandated communications function; it is a key investment in utility asset protection, system integrity, and the safety, health, and security of communities/constituents being served by utilities.

Proving the value of something that never happened

Proving the value of something that never happened

Excavation incidents cause nearly 60 percent of utility distribution pipeline damages. Given the proximity of the public to natural gas infrastructure, a considerable risk exists for many more than just those who come into unsafe contact with pipelines. Today, some utilities are looking beyond risk and seeing opportunities. Like a neighborhood watch organization for crime, they see the public’s pipeline proximity as a way to expand the number of individuals capable of identifying and reporting problems or suspicious activities. When they are thoughtfully conceived and implemented, natural gas public safety engagement programs can drive desired behavior and are relatively fast and inexpensive to implement.

How to access hard-to-reach audiences

Selective attention is human nature. Audiences experience messaging fatigue and tend to pay attention to only what’s top of mind. So, how do natural gas pipeline operators ensure the at-risk public knows they live and work near a pipeline?

How to access hard-to-reach audiences

When polling members of the public who live and work near a pipeline, we discovered that on average six out of ten of them knew they were located near it. Younger individuals are even less likely to know this. However, as any utility being audited can attest, “America’s youth are hard to reach” is not a defensible explanation, especially if an accident happens. Regulators demand proof that utilities are making a concerted effort to improve the reach and impact of safety awareness programs.

How to access hard-to-reach audiences

Regular communication remains key to increasing proximity awareness as well as perceived topic relevance. In fact, the more communication someone recalls, the more likely the individual is to demonstrate knowledge of natural gas leak recognition as well as pipeline proximity. Furthermore, individuals who remember natural gas safety communications are more likely to exhibit other safe behaviors. For example, they show greater awareness of the Call Before You Dig program, and they demonstrate significantly greater knowledge about how to respond if they suspect a leak.

Increasing communication value by increasing relevance

Research proves that stakeholders value the safety information their utilities send them. Because mandated public awareness initiatives provide a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to how these campaigns are executed, utilities can gain substantial value by delivering branded communication and strategically tailoring safety messaging, visuals, channels, frequency, and timing to better reach target audiences. In addition, each utility can integrate its unique value proposition into its outreach program, further strengthening the link between the utility’s brand and its commitment to public safety.

Successful utilities are strategic about getting the word out

Successful utilities are strategic

Utilities have long relied on—and indeed are ordered by regulators to use—bill inserts to communicate important natural gas safety information and warnings. However, limiting outreach to the mandated bare minimum is ineffective and opens the door to criticism from pundits, regulators, and intervenors. In addition, today many customers opt to go paperless and don’t even receive traditional bills or inserts. That is why utilities are also using additional mail-based solutions as well as email and social media to supplement their bill insert communications.

Some advocates insist that utilities need to modernize and migrate primarily or exclusively to digital media to attract and retain the attention of millennials. The reality is, however, that utilities who fail to utilize a strategic blend of traditional and digital channels receive lackluster results. There is no one-size-fits-all channel for communicating safety to millennials or any other stakeholder segment. Research shows that singular digital or traditional outreach methods are less successful in capturing stakeholder attention because targeted audiences are diverse, not monolithic.

Successful utilities are strategic

Interestingly, the United States Post Office found that nearly 50 percent of all millennials check their (physical) mailboxes daily and look forward to it. This is not to say they don’t value digital communication; it means leveraging multiple channels and using a thoughtful approach are essential for ensuring engagement with utility safety messaging for any audience.

Think creatively

Targeting audiences not expressly identified in regulatory mandates can also deliver highly successful outcomes. For example, school-age children do not seem to represent a typical stakeholder group for regulated communications. However, the impact of utility school safety education programs has proven to be measurably effective because students and their teachers are trusted information ambassadors for parents, guardians, and other family members.

Think creatively

Several US utilities offer comprehensive outreach programs that target students with important safety content using print and digital materials. These programs produce some noteworthy results: Culver Company’s school program benchmark database reveals that for every teacher material request, 150 or more students are reached over the course of a year. These students gain valuable safety knowledge, as demonstrated by significant increases in their knowledge about utility public safety.

Further research demonstrates that caregivers of these students are highly engaged in these programs and also show a greater awareness of the safety messaging. This produces a multiplier effect, with teachers, students, and the adults in students’ families becoming engaged with utility public safety awareness messaging.

The lesson

While utilities and regulators work diligently to enhance the safety of natural gas pipeline systems, they often overlook the additional operational value gained by also integrating investments in pipeline public safety awareness and damage prevention education into their infrastructure programs.

The lesson

While these education programs often cost relatively little compared to capital projects, they favorably impact safety knowledge and behaviors. They can be implemented relatively quickly, provide the public with vital information to identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations, and protect pipeline infrastructure investments. In essence, a knowledgeable and engaged public serves as additional eyes and ears that can safely help utilities identify or avoid potentially hazardous situations.

In addition, when utility safety communications have been properly brand aligned, these programs enhance the reputation of the utility as a trusted and valued community partner. Research demonstrates that the public expects utilities to communicate safety information and that when utilities meet these expectations, both their public image and the perception of their value to the community benefit.

About Culver Company

Culver Company brings more than 40 years of experience working with leading utility companies nationwide. Our clients gain access to a powerful and diverse team of professionals with the technical expertise, industry insight, and strategic experience to help organizations meet their goals.

Culver Company maintains an industry leadership position because we customize our services to each utility’s unique goals, regulatory environment, and at-risk public profile to move beyond compliance and hone a utility’s existing public safety culture. Our team takes a strategic approach to help evaluate your company’s strengths and identify areas of improvement. We have the experience, know-how, and data to help evolve your public safety program to the next level to ultimately mitigate risk while adding value to your public image and financial health.

Contact us to begin the conversation:

Culver Company – Strategic Services
800-428-5837
solutions@culverco.com

[1] American Gas Association 2018 Playbook.

Comprehensive Public Safety
Education Benefits Us All

The all-too-real reality

Public safety education and training saves lives.  Whether you are a utility employee, public official, excavator, contractor or community member – knowing what to do and when to do it can mean the difference between life and death. In June of 2017, this became all too real for an elderly couple when a contractor doing excavation work hit a nearby underground natural gas pipeline, causing their suburban Los Angeles home to explode.[1]

The homeowners knew to immediately go outside and call the utility. When a utility representative arrived onscene, the couple motioned for him to park in their driveway. Following safety protocol, the representative parked away from the driveway and waved to the couple to walk to his truck instead.[2] The couple complied and moved towards him, at which point their home erupted.

Walking to the employee’s truck saved this couple’s life. Had they remained in the driveway, this story may have ended differently.  Thankfully, incidents like these from natural gas leaks are a very rare occurrence, but even one is too many.

This incident is a great demonstration of why utility companies work tirelessly to protect the at-risk public through safety education. In fact, benchmark data on utilities’ public safety outreach program effectiveness demonstrates nine out of ten members of the public know to evacuate immediately if they suspect a natural gas leak – a key message included in public safety communication from their utility. With awareness of the need to evacuate so high, why don’t companies back off on their safety outreach? While nine members of the public know to evacuate, the fact remains that one does not. Should that one person encounter a gas leak, the results could prove devastating.

The at-risk public is not static. People move in and out of homes, with some becoming first-time homeowners. In addition, while evacuation from the area is a best-practice response, knowing how to prevent a gas leak is just as if not more important. As an example, property owners need to call to have lines marked before they dig, and should insist their contractors do the same.

In fact, beyond members of the general public, there are numerous stakeholders that need to be educated to keep the community safe. Contractors who dig as part of their work such as residential and commercial construction workers, plumbers and emergency personnel responding to gas emergencies, all play an important role. Even educators and public officials can make a difference when it comes to natural gas safety education. Segmenting outreach helps ensure that various impacted groups obtain the necessary knowledge to prevent and handle natural gas emergencies.

Thinking back to the anecdote of the elderly homeowners in Los Angeles, the couple and the utility employee knew to evacuate, the explosion itself resulted from a contractor failing to follow proper protocol. The local utility never received a request from the contractor to locate underground natural gas pipelines before crews began excavating. They dug into the gas pipeline as a result. This apparent break in safety protocol meant substantial financial losses for everyone involved. The homeowners suffered the loss of their home and damage to their property. The contractor faced the costs of repairing the damaged pipeline in addition to legal fees and possibly settlement costs.

Failures like this one occur for a number of reasons. However, a first step to prevention is ensuring stakeholders demonstrate awareness of safety protocols and understand the life-saving value of following such procedures. Not surprisingly, the more engaged a particular segment of the population is in their own safety, the more likely they are to act safely.

But how does an energy utility engage the public in this important topic without causing undue worry? The advent of Recommended Practice 1162, or RP 1162, by the American Petroleum Institute, specifies public safety communication requirements and has been an important move forward. Industry experts, however, express concern over getting the public’s attention in a world of competing priorities and communication. Research demonstrates that more relevant the audience finds the message, the more likely they are to engage it. Developing specific content, visuals, messages and channels addressing the most pertinent issues faced by specific audience groups help grab their attention, increases awareness and changes unsafe behaviors; this strategy is known as advanced segmentation.

For example, educating plumbers about cross bore hazards increases their knowledge about situations likely to arise on the job. Similarly, an important safety checkpoint for homeowners is receiving content reminding them to call before they build a fence, install an underground irrigation system or embark on other projects requiring digging.

In particular, young school-age children can serve as a very influential group when it comes to public safety. In research conducted with elementary and middle school children, students demonstrated higher safety knowledge on tests administered after completing a utility public safety curriculum. Furthermore, these students’ family members also reported that their child shared the utility safety information with them. Students not only learned how to avoid potential hazards, but also educated their family members.

For decades, Culver Company has partnered with utilities to advance public safety education and engagement efforts. Culver Company has developed a deep expertise in the best practices used to reach different segments of the public, moving beyond simply notifying them about safety hazards to truly engaging them with the safety message.

Utilities Must Meet Increasing Expectations in a More Challenging Environment

Many utilities boast a long history of investing in public safety communication. Enhancing the public’s awareness of utility safety protocols, however, is growing increasingly important, as demonstrated by the increased regulatory focus. The financial consequences of utility-related incidents will be more heavily scrutinized by investors, the insurance industry, regulators, and local politicians, as evidenced by numerous highly publicized accidents. In response, some utilities are embarking on continuous improvement programs to ensure year-over-year progress.

The threat of more incidents looms due to an aging utility workforce and infrastructure. Sources report that up to one-third of utility employees are hitting retirement age.[3] As the more than 76 million baby boomers begin to rapidly move into retirement, taking their experience and institutional knowledge with them, less-experienced employees are taking their places. Utilities have sought to aggressively close knowledge and experience gaps by increasing the intensity and scope of new employee education and ongoing training. Utilities also express concern about retaining the new employees they do hire, exacerbating the potential for knowledge-gaps.

Add on to these workforce issues the advanced age of our nation’s natural gas infrastructure, where in some states, parts of the distribution system are more than 100 years old.[4] Aggressive modernization efforts continue, but they can take years—decades, in fact—as well as significant investment. An informed public helps to mitigate at least some of the risks associated with aging leak-prone infrastructure.

These major concerns, along with the intrinsic drive to keep people safe, are why more utility executives are executing comprehensive, strategically-focused public safety education campaigns that extend well beyond meeting minimum regulatory requirements.

Furthermore, these leaders realize that capital investment and leadership buy-in for comprehensive public safety education strategies do more than prevent costly financial exposure; they add value to each department of the company. These programs build the utility’s credibility, which in turn enhances brand reputation, demonstrates a commitment to responsible fiduciary management, increases stakeholder confidence and builds community trust. In fact, J.D. Power and Associates credits natural gas utilities’ increased focus on safety communication as a major driver of industry satisfaction increases.[5]

Culver Company’s benchmark research, compares performance across utilities’ safety outreach programs and demonstrates how public safety communication programs favorably impact utility image when it comes to safety perceptions. The research specifically shows that when utilities’ efforts extend beyond compliance, the public feels they demonstrate a higher safety commitment.

Safety culture – capturing the heads and hearts of employees in protecting the public

How can a rapidly-changing industry keep an eye on the multiple variables involving public safety communication to create a sustainable and systemic approach? Over the years, Culver Company, in partnership with the leading utilities we serve, has identified industry best practices for promoting public safety and damage prevention awareness. Focusing on comprehensive outreach, including engaging utility employees as well as key segments of the public rather than a “check-the-box” compliance-based approach, makes a significant difference in ramping up stakeholder knowledge of desirable safety behaviors. We can capture the heads and hearts of the public as well as utility employees.

A culture of safetyRobust research with target audience members ensures messages not only reach the public through the channels they are most likely to value, but do so in ways that educate and empower stakeholders to act more safely. Ongoing benchmarking research also helps set a foundation for continuous improvement, resulting in utility public safety programs that meet the public’s rising expectations year over year.

At the same time, highly successful utilities embrace a comprehensive safety culture by instilling the message that safety matters on and off the job. Grassroots employee efforts embrace the accountability of demonstrating safe behavior 24/7 while reminding friends and family to do the same. By leveraging the inherent credibility and expertise of employees, utilities benefit from an employee advocacy that further supports existing public safety communications.

Starting the journey

Where can a utility start? Listed below are three main stages in the evolution of utility public safety communications programs to help you begin evaluating where your company is in this process.

Progressive stages in public safety education:

  • Mitigation-Focused Programs – Meet compliance criteria only
  • Responsive Programs – Blend mitigation efforts with response actions to certain risks or incidents that have occurred
  • Culture-based Programs – Most comprehensive, instill a sense of personal accountability by considering what has happened as well as what could happen in the future

Living in the past

Mitigation and responsive programs are reactive and measure past events, such as number of incidents, deaths, injuries, dig-ins and/or legal claims; they focus on lagging indicators.  While these lagging indicators can prove helpful in identifying gaps, they offer little information on how to prevent these events from occurring in the first place. 

Keeping an eye on the future

In comparison, culture-based public safety strategies consider both past events and future trends.  They take into consideration leading indicators, which are valuable because they can predict and influence future change. This approach moves from looking at what has happened and what could happen, to where the utility wants to be. Some examples include:

  • Effectiveness of touchpoints with at-risk audiences
  • Consideration of the “damage rate”
  • Response time to gas leaks

Success in a challenging environment

Assessing where the various segments comprising the at-risk public are in terms of safety knowledge serves as an important next step. Specifically, primary research that measures results annually helps utilities keep their fingers on the pulse of the public’s rising expectations and defines what “good” looks like – two areas regulators often question during audits.

Moreover, the information also sets a foundation for maximizing the return on investment for public safety engagement programs. Specifically, the research ensures important safety messages are seen, understood and continue to resonate with target audiences. Advanced segmentation helps to get the most out of programs, because utilities can be confident the right message is seen at the right time by the right audience.

Information gleaned from the research also helps utility employees support public safety efforts on and off the job. Sharing relevant information about at-risk audiences helps utility employees who regularly engage with the public better communicate information and encourage safe behavior.

Now, based on what you know – how do you define your company’s public safety education? Does it adequately match your overall strategy? Does it deliver the results you expect? If you are still not sure, you are not alone; this is why many leading utility companies seek external expertise to assess and build their programs. 

The next steps in this evolution

Strategic, comprehensive public safety campaigns are now the norm, rather than the industry gold standard. They are proven to make the public safer while improving a company’s reputation and financial health. Designing and implementing a utility public safety communications outreach initiative that aligns with your utility’s short- and long-term goals and strategy doesn’t have to be daunting – not with the right partner.

About Culver Company

Culver Company brings more than 40 years of experience working with leading utility companies nationwide.  Our clients gain access to a powerful and diverse team of professionals with the technical expertise, industry insight and strategic experience to help organizations meet their goals.

Culver Company maintains an industry leadership position because we customize our services to each utility’s unique goals, regulatory environment, and at-risk public profile to move beyond compliance and hone a utility’s existing public safety culture.  Our team takes a strategic approach to help evaluate your company’s strengths and identify areas of improvement.  We have the experience, know-how and data to help evolve your public safety program to the next level to ultimately mitigate risk while adding value to its public image and financial health.

Contact us to begin the conversation:

Culver Company – Strategic Services
800-428-5837
sales@culverco.com


[1] http://abc7.com/news/woodland-hills-home-in-flames-after-gas-explosion/2125103/

[2] https://www.dailynews.com
[3] https://www.energycentral.com
[4] https://www.energy.gov
[5] J.D. Power Residential Natural Gas Satisfaction Study

The Culture of Public Safety and the Importance of Employee Engagement

Public safety must be embedded in a utility’s culture. It must be central to thought, behavior, and work. According to one safety manager, “It takes a real commitment on behalf of everyone to create and implement a safety culture.” The goal is to create “an environment in which every employee is personally committed to his or her own safety as well as that of others.”

Research confirms the connection. A 2013 study reveals that 72 percent of workers surveyed said that employee engagement is essential in order for an organization to achieve its goals. Recently, in a related article, Public Utilities Fortnightly reported: “If employees are committed, then they will work harder to remedy internal and external problems.”

Research into employee engagement as a means of shaping “high-performance cultures” notes two key steps are required:

  1. Gaining management buy-in and
  2. Building employee buy-in and trust.

In other words, for public safety to become embedded in the culture, it must extend from the grassroots to the grass tops—full employee engagement.

Organizational behavior experts note that employee engagement remains every company’s biggest challenge, but when properly managed, the return on investment is significant. This is especially true for utilities whose image is intrinsically tied to safe and reliable operations, and for whom engaged employees translates into meaningful interactions with the community, a strengthened public image, and ultimately, greater business success.

When all levels of an organization understand and devote themselves to the company’s internal and external safety goals, then success can be achieved. Key elements necessary to successfully embed public safety into a culture include:

  • Commitment by leadership
  • Clearly defined public safety vision
  • A working understanding by employees
  • Opportunities for involvement at all levels
  • Training and development
  • Clear communication throughout the organization
  • Ongoing assessment and continuous improvement

It is possible to create a financially sustainable culture of public safety. The direct and indirect financial benefits of accident prevention more than pay for the costs of internal and public safety education programs. When leadership gathers input, listens to the people of the organization, and supports internal and public safety efforts, they send a clear message to employees (and the public) that safety is a priority. This commitment by company leadership is crucial.

Studies across various industries report that strong public safety cultures and employee engagement go hand and hand, and companies with such cultures see higher levels of productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability. As noted in one such study, utilities that manage the right cultural factors proactively can expect to achieve a return on investment (profitability) three to four times higher than those who do not.”

Effective Public Safety Communication: The Right Audience, The Right Message, The Right Channel

Effective communication is crucial toward achieving your public safety goals. But do you know if your communications are actually working? Are you doing the right things to ensure that they are?

With utility public safety outreach, like every communication model, the onus is on the sender to effectively convey the message and ensure the receiver understands it and takes appropriate action. Now if everyone had the same point of view this would be simple, but every audience differs. Therefore, if you want to make an impact you must target your audience, tailor your message, and use the right channels to reach them.

It sounds like a big commitment, and it is, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. The result is a utility public safety outreach program that offers strategic advantages.

Target Your Audience

The first step in effective utility public safety communication is to target your audience. This requires you to properly identify, research, and actually understand them. To identify audiences, consider your organizational goals, your public safety plans, and key performance indicators. In addition to the audiences identified therein, incorporate audiences mandated by regulators and other governing bodies.

Once you’ve identified your at-risk audience, it’s important to research and build profiles. Start this process with available in-house data. For example, if you’re looking to reduce dig-ins and related repeat offenders, it’s worthwhile to acquire data from your claims, legal, and risk management departments. This information can be augmented via private and public sector databases such as 811/One-Call and other sources. Additionally, there’s an abundance of secondary research available that can provide you with valuable insight.

Finally, when engineering your utility public safety outreach program, it’s critical to include mechanisms for ongoing data collection and feedback. Tools such as business reply mail, surveys, Web forms, email, and outbound call center scripts, are essential to understanding your audiences, their changing behaviors, needs, and preferences—all critical to engaging with them in a meaningful way.

Develop Custom Messages

By targeting your audience, you can begin to pinpoint key messages. Knowing their behaviors, needs, and preferences will help you to develop meaningful communications that connect with them and effect change. Our research shows that when you appeal to your audience with tailored messages, imagery that’s specific to their industry, and communication vehicles that they prefer, you make a greater impact.

For example, in the case of third-party contractors, our research reveals that tailored resources generate a significant increase in “mail opens” and email “click-throughs.” Additionally, contractors are more likely to integrate tailored resources into their formal employee trainings and tailgate meetings. This translates into increased time spent with these training materials which leads to higher information retention and recall rates. These user-engagement metrics are leading indicators that your public safety outreach communication is working—i.e. a well-informed contractor is more likely to behave safely around electrical and natural gas lines and lower the risk of accident.

Use the Right Communication Channels

Today’s communication professionals have more channels at their disposal than ever before. While it’s always nice to have options, it can be challenging to select the right channels in order to reach your audience. You may be tempted to select new, trendy media channels, but it’s more important to know your audience and what they respond to. Ultimately, the measure of success isn’t necessarily based in “hits” or “likes” but instead the achievement of goals such as raised awareness, educated audiences, changed behaviors, and reduced accidents.

When you know your audience, you’re able to select the right channels to reach them and produce the results that you desire. Case-in-point, when it comes to school teachers, we understand that they value direct mail as a primary channel of communication. We also know that educators are required to meet state and national academic standards, so it’s important to tailor electrical and natural gas safety resources to meet those requirements if they are to implement them in the classroom.

Teachers are a major influencer and an ambassador for your public safety message. These trained education professionals implement your safety lessons, and generally encourage kids to take printed resources home and share them with their families—thereby encouraging secondary and tertiary readership. It’s clear that when you target audiences and meet their needs with tailored messaging that’s delivered through proper media and channels, the result is effective public safety outreach.

Raise the Bar for the Right Results

Generally speaking, the bar is rising: the public is continually growing more sophisticated and discerning. In fact, each subset of the population wants to be recognized and satisfied when it comes to engaging with the world, including the businesses and organizations they’re connected to. Think about the fact that three networks dominated television from the 1950s to the 1990s, but now, according to Nielsen, the average American household receives over 189 channels covering a variety of specialty niches. Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all utility bill stuffer.

Savvy communicators realize that you will not make an impact in this complex world without meeting your customers’ requirements. They understand the payoff. For those of us involved with utility public safety outreach, the data confirms it: targeting the right audience, with the right message via the right channel, equals the right results.

Measuring Public Safety: Take the Lead

Utility companies are discovering the advantages of strategic public safety outreach. But, to fully realize the benefits, they must break from tradition and make a paradigm shift. The new edict: if you want to improve your public safety outreach, you must change the way it’s measured.

There’s no disputing that measuring performance is crucial to success. It’s an absolute necessity for strategic planning, goal setting, and continuous improvement. The challenge is determining what to measure. How do you know which indicators will help you gauge performance?

While it’s important to determine bottom-line results of your safety program, you must also know how you’re doing at accident prevention. Therefore, you require two different kinds of measurements, and you must understand the value of leading and lagging indicators.

Leading and lagging indicators have their origins in the field of macroeconomics. Generally speaking, these economic indicators are pieces of data used to judge the overall health of the economy—allowing organizations to make productive financial decisions. Measurements like retail sales and building permits are examples of leading indicators, whereas measures such as gross domestic product (GDP) and unemployment figures are considered lagging indicators.

Both types of data provide very useful information. So what’s the difference?

  • Leading indicators communicate change and therefore they can be used to predict and influence future trends.
  • Lagging indicators reflect historical performance, a trend that has already occurred. They are usually easier to measure and as a result they are an excellent way to evaluate the effectiveness of your programs.

Both are essential to measuring performance and establishing a world-class safety program.

In fact, for well over a decade, many corporations have applied this approach to their internal safety programs. These companies have identified key performance indicators (KPIs)—leading and lagging—that have helped significantly improve safety. By many accounts, those who have taken this methodical approach to managing risk have reaped rewards in the millions of dollars as a result of far fewer injuries, lost workdays, and other improvements. The same principles can be applied to utility public safety.

Traditionally, utility companies have utilized lagging indicators to measure their public safety results. Lagging indicators, like number of accident claims and loss-related figures, help determine results but they don’t tell you how to improve. Since leading indicators are predictive in nature, they can help you see how your program is doing and where you might need to make changes to get to the outcome you desire. Ultimately they drive the activities that prevent accidents.

According to safety and risk management professionals, when used in this manner, leading indicators:

  • Allow you to see improvements in performance
  • Measure the positive
  • Enable frequent vital stakeholder feedback
  • Help you predict
  • Improve constructive problem solving around safety
  • Make it clear what needs to be done to get better
  • Track impact versus intention

Public safety leading indicators measure the positive and they’re based in engagement with key audiences (which is an essential element of public safety outreach). For example, with regards to audiences like school children, we measure classroom engagement, safety information retention, and other factors. These leading indicators are precursors to changed behavior and ultimately fewer accidents and greater return on investment.

Similarly, with third-party contractors and other workers, we measure their behaviors, preferences, and perceptions. These KPIs not only act as a barometer for this at-risk segment, they provide valuable information toward strategic planning and continuous improvement—information that ensures a utility meets its public safety goals. In short, these leading indicators help the utility to capitalize upon successes and improve upon any identified gaps.

Furthermore, we know that the value-adds of focusing upon leading indicators—which are more proactive and preventative—include an enhanced image and greater customer satisfaction. When a utility regularly and effectively engages with the public, we see a significant increase in customer satisfaction-related scores—which studies show directly correlates to improved return-on-equity and more favorable regulatory outcomes.

Utilities that understand the public’s safety information needs, and focus on leading indicators, actually create prevention. Succinctly put by one corporate executive, “Traditional [loss] metrics can help companies tell the score at the end of the game, but they don’t help management understand the strengths and weaknesses of their safety efforts and cannot help managers with future success [like leading indicators].” Establishing the right leading indicators will help you take an effective, proactive approach toward public safety—and measuring key lagging indicators will confirm your success. The result is a world-class public safety program (and the many business advantages that come along with it).

Public Safety Contributes to Shareholder Value

Investors are always looking for companies showing a solid financial performance. With a product that’s considered a necessity and a firm governance structure, utilities have typically provided a safe return on investment. That said, today’s utility company faces many competitive threats—some of which challenge the conventional utility model. That’s where public safety can offer a competitive advantage.

The shifting energy landscape—exemplified by more affordable solar solutions for customers—continues to test the traditional utility financial model. On the expense-side of the equation, utilities must contend with significant operating costs. They must also  justify (to regulators and other stakeholders) capital expenditures for necessary system upgrades.

In this challenging environment, public safety programs provide a competitive edge that’s crucial to a utility company’s overall financial well-being. They’re an investment that can offer a measurable return. That’s because public safety impacts financial, operational, regulatory, and reputational risks (and their outcomes).

Public Safety Mitigates Risk at Various Levels

Financial

  • Investment community confidencePublic Safety Mitigates Risk
  • Credit risk
  • Remediation
  • Litigation

Operational 

  • Performance gaps
  • Operational inefficiencies
  • Infrastructure
  • Workforce turnover
  • Organizational knowledge assets

Regulatory 

  • Fines
  • Reduced license to operate
  • Risk earning authorized rate of return
  • Required resources for hearings

Reputational

  • Negative media attention
  • Special interest group attacks
  • Employee disengagement
  • Customer dissatisfaction
  • Public confidence and trust
  • Key stakeholder relationships

At the top level, senior leadership knows that public perception about the utility’s commitment to safety is critically important—this is true whether or not a utility is responsible for a safety-related incident. The mere suggestion that a utility may be liable or negligent is enough to damage investor confidence. Rather than reactively managing an incident through public relations, public safety programs that are strategically integrated into the operation work proactively to build customer confidence and loyalty.

Consider the case of federal pipeline safety regulations “Public Awareness Programs for Pipeline Operators” (aka RP 1162).  Until a few years ago, utilities were not yet in a position to consider the impacts on customer opinion and satisfaction, or the rate case impacts of a sustained public safety awareness initiative. They were focused instead on understanding the law’s requirements and developing the resources sufficient to respond to these new requirements.

In the last couple of years, however, leading utilities with gas assets have recognized that public safety awareness programs positively enhance their public perceptions, which influences regulators as they review a utility’s request for rate relief. What’s more, many have realized that a well-designed, integrated, and dedicated public safety program provides operational benefits. According to one former utility executive, such public safety programs “promote increased productivity and also enhance a company’s bottom line. When resources are used more efficiently, company operations run more smoothly with enhanced profitability.”

As with employee safety, public safety must be embedded into the utility company culture—this company commitment to a culture of public safety directly enhances the brand. Utility companies must live it and it must permeate the organization at all business levels (See Enterprise Risk Management: Breaking the Mold in the Utility Industry). We know through our research, that meaningful engagement with the public translates into a positive perception and improved customer satisfaction. We also know that this converts into benefits on the regulatory side: utilities with higher levels of customer satisfaction experience more expedient rate cases as well as rate increases closer to their requests (versus those with lower customer satisfaction scores).

Public utility commissions consider both accident rates and public perception when making decisions about rate requests. A poor safety record combined with low customer satisfaction scores may be cause for a commission to grant a less favorable rate increase. Clearly the return on public safety investment can be significant. In addition to improved regulatory outcomes, the benefits include saved lives, mitigated risk, enhanced reliability, and fewer lawsuits.

All of these benefits are borne out in a company’s financial statements. So it’s no surprise to anyone that public safety is getting more attention from investors. A recent study conducted by investment analysts emphasizes this point, concluding, “Investors are increasingly using safety measures to screen out underperforming stocks and are showing much stronger returns for doing so.” As the marketplace heats up, utility companies need to look toward strategically integrated public safety programs to gain a competitive advantage, boost their bottom line, and satisfy all of their stakeholders.

The Benefits of Enhancing Brand through Public Safety

The connection between public safety and a utility’s brand is clear at the most fundamental level:

A utility provides information to keep its community safe, therefore it has done something good and provided a benefit, which also boosts its public image.

But the benefits of brand actually go much deeper than image. The seemingly intangible nature of brand can in fact be quantified and linked to financial advantages through public safety outreach.

Brand equity, the value that customers associate with your organization, is reflected through awareness, connections, experiences, and perceptions of quality and commitment. Over the years countless research studies have shown that customer satisfaction impacts the strength and favorability of the associations with brand. For utilities, that customer satisfaction is indelibly linked to public safety.

Today’s consumer is much more discerning than ever before. They’re actively involved in their world and its social issues including safety and stewardship. Therefore it’s essential for utilities to engage with them about safety issues in a meaningful way. According to industry analysts, “Utilities are doing a better job adding capabilities for proactive communication and upping their corporate citizenship but they are not keeping pace with those in a variety of other service industries, yet customers expect the same high level of service.”

Active engagement and proper messaging is especially important to satisfying customers and meeting their expectations around safety. For example, in our research conducted with thousands of at-risk workers nationwide, nine out of ten workers say that they expect utilities to communicate safety information. That statistic directly correlates to the perceptions that they have about their utility. Our data shows that workers whose expectations have been met through useful utility-sponsored safety education strongly believe that their utility is committed to safety.

We uncovered similar findings with other at-risk audiences like teachers and students. In our nationwide surveys, teachers say that they find utility safety education information useful. They actually commit significant classroom time to using these resources. Additionally, the vast majority of teachers who receive well-designed resources encourage students to take them home and share the information with family members (see Public Safety to Elementary Schools is a Sound Investment). This behavior exemplifies customer satisfaction and it spreads utility safety messages and goodwill, enhancing brand.

In order to achieve these sorts of results, utility public safety programs must be comprehensive and based upon research-driven continuous improvement. It’s essential that a utility understand the behaviors and preferences of its customers. This helps foster quality messaging that’s tailored to each of the target audiences—ensuring that they use the information, their expectations are met, their needs are satisfied, and the utility brand is enhanced.

So what are the benefits of satisfied customers and the resulting brand equity achieved through public safety? The key benefit of course is saved lives. Well-received safety information means an educated public and a decrease in utility-related accidents and related losses. But there are many other strategic business advantages that can be realized. Research confirms the following:

  • There’s a direct relationship between the level of customer satisfaction and a utility’s net operating margin.
  • There is a strong relationship between customer satisfaction and return on equity (ROE).
  • Brand-level satisfaction scores are associated with the expediency and the time it takes to complete a rate case.
  • Utilities with the highest proportions of satisfied customers received rate increases closer to their requests than did utilities with lower customer satisfaction scores.
  • Customer satisfaction is one of the key variables used by rating agencies to assess risk, and ultimately, determine utility credit rating (i.e. there’s a correlation between regulatory risk and customer satisfaction).

Providing a strong financial performance for investors is a critical element in a utility’s ability to offer safe, reliable, and affordable power and stay competitive. It enables companies to invest in infrastructure upgrades, sophisticated business systems, and improved processes while also maintaining a productive relationship with stakeholders. Public safety is the linchpin to delivering these returns.

A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers concludes, “Investing in the customer experience can yield rewards as significant as investing in tangible assets, such as power plants and transmission lines.” Well-conceived and well-executed public safety programs designed to satisfy customer needs and increase brand equity, translate into significant business advantages. In short, an investment in public safety is an investment in brand. And, as the adage goes (and the data proves), for utilities, brand is everything.

Benchmarking Public Safety: The Measure of Success

It’s clear that public outreach is essential to building a culture of safety in your community. But, how do you know if your outreach programs are making a difference? How do you measure their success? And, how do you build upon that success?

For utility companies who are looking to truly make an impact on public safety and gain a strategic business advantage, benchmarking is the answer.Benchmarking

Simply put, benchmarking is the process for obtaining a measure—a benchmark. When it comes to public safety programs, the right benchmarks can help gauge your performance and the information gathered through the process can identify gaps in organizational processes, ultimately helping you to close them and gain advantages. Accordingly, benchmarking helps utilities align strategic planning (and in turn, outreach programs) with core customer expectations, desires, and needs.

Understanding the Customer is the Cornerstone

Customers are, of course, central to public safety. In order for your public safety outreach program to succeed, you must understand the behaviors and preferences of your customers—workers, first responders, school children, residents, and other at-risk audiences. This is critical to meeting their expectations, ensuring that they use your information, and for targeting performance improvements.

When you understand your audience, you’re able to hone your message, determine the best vehicles for communication, and capitalize upon the right channels in order to effectively reach them. Furthermore, understanding the audience is vital to continuous improvement, which is essential in today’s ever-changing marketplace. Competitive organizations constantly monitor key audiences. This work is the cornerstone of public safety and the benchmarking process.

Aligning Corporate Goals with Customer Metrics

It’s equally important to understand your organization’s goals, guidelines, and performance indicators before embarking on any initiative to measure performance and target improvements. Assimilating this information into your efforts and tying performance indicators to appropriate customer metrics are essential ways of determining whether or not you’re meeting your goals. For example, for many utilities a key performance indicator is a targeted reduction in overall utility-related incidents. Therefore it’s important to track metrics relating to how at-risk workers use utility-sponsored safety information.

Reduction of KPIOther key performance indicators may relate to customer satisfaction. Prominent studies indicate a direct correlation between customer satisfaction and business advantages (e.g., J.D. Power reports that every one-point increase in customer satisfaction generates millions in shareholder equity). Therefore, in our work with utilities, we focus upon tying metrics like workers’ perception of a utility’s safety efforts and the perceived value of the information that utilities provide to customer satisfaction levels.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Accident Prevention

It’s important to measure the effectiveness of accident prevention. In other words, you must measure the effectiveness of your program before accidents occur. This benchmarking strategy is an essential part of public outreach, and its metrics act as leading indicators, revealing the level of preparedness in the community. It is important to measure customer engagement with your communications because there’s a strong correlation between accident prevention and the engagement level of an outreach audience.

Historically, utility companies have only measured the results of their public outreach via loss-oriented data by calculating the number of incidents, accidents, and injuries, and compiling a list of lawsuits and damages. This method provides data about the program’s impact on community safety but it is a lagging indicator. It measures results of the outreach efforts after the damage has been done. These are certainly important metrics, but in the new paradigm they equate to checking your math—they serve to validate the prevention-based leading indicators.

Using the prior example of “reducing the number of incidents” as a corporate goal, it’s clear that by calculating the number of incidents at the end of each year’s program cycle, you will indeed determine whether or not you’ve made an impact. However, in contrast, measuring customer engagement will tell you if your outreach program is making an impact, and why or why not. This measurement will also provide useful information on how to improve it.

Top-Down Support is Essential

It’s worth stating again: For benchmarking to have any value, you and your research partner must have the support of executive leadership. When your benchmarking efforts align with corporate management’s objectives, you’ll establish more meaningful metrics. Subsequently, your public safety programs can be fitted with the research tools necessary to gather customer feedback and data.

Properly engineered surveys and questionnaires, along with online, telephone, and direct mail-based information gathering tools, can be integrated into your program. The resultant data is then used to establish baseline measurements—an important step toward improving your outreach programs. While benchmarking allows you to compare your public outreach programs against the industry’s best, baselining will help you gain your bearings and set initial organizational goals. The baselining process is a key mile marker on your way to establishing a best-in-class public safety program.

Achieving a Strategic Advantage

Benchmarking is intended to compare you to the industry’s best, but much of the value is in the process—identifying your customers’ needs, aligning with your corporate goals, setting baselines, establishing metrics, identifying  gaps, instituting improvements, and capitalizing upon best practices.diagram

While comparing your organization to its peers is revealing and can kindle the desire to compete, it’s really your utility’s service area-specific data that’s transformational. Time after time we see the power of outreach program metrics produce positive change within an organization—generating important conversations, breaking down barriers, and enhancing strategic planning. For utility companies who are looking to improve their public safety programs, the benchmarking process can have a profound impact.

Public Safety Outreach to Elementary Schools Is a Sound Investment

Outreach to elementary school students can have a major impact on public safety. School outreach is not just good community relations, it’s one of the most effective ways to communicate important messages and promote a culture of safety in your community. So whether your focus is safety, communications, legal, risk management, or regulatory affairs, school outreach is an investment that can earn returns.

Elementary school children (and their teachers) are among the best targets for utility safety outreach for many reasons:

  • School-age children care about right and wrong and understand the importance of safety messages. They’re at a stage where they understand consequences and are beginning to make their own decisions based on the lessons they learn.
  • Children are highly impressionable. Much of what they learn in the elementary grades stays with them for the rest of their lives, including when they become your adult customers.
  • Elementary school teachers like using electrical and natural gas education resources. When properly designed, such resources can help teachers address academic standards and can easily be incorporated into school curriculum.
  • During the elementary school years, students bring educational materials home, stimulating meaningful discussion with parents and siblings and increasing awareness and behavioral change.
  • Teachers themselves learn a great deal from the programs and discuss the information with both their peers and their families.

Effectiveness Study Results
Research supports the effectiveness of educational outreach to elementary school students. On an annual basis, we collect feedback from thousands of K-6 teachers nationwide. We find that the vast majority appreciate the resources and are able to apply them to subjects such as reading, science, health, math, and social studies. The resources also address national and state curriculum standards—aiding in the classroom adoption of your safety lessons.

To better understand teachers’ information needs and perceptions, we regularly ask if they feel the resources are worthwhile. We specifically ask teachers whether the educational resources:

  • Benefit students
  • Are discussed at home
  • Connect with students
  • Are valuable

In all four categories, an overwhelming majority respond positively, stating that students will use electricity and natural gas more safely as a result of the resources utilities provide.

The Snowball Effect
In addition to reaching an audience that is receptive, elementary school programs have a “multiplier” effect: They communicate utility messaging to more than just the students. Our research indicates that one teacher can help deliver this important information to tens, even hundreds, of community members.

School Outreach According to effectiveness studies of teachers using Culver utility education booklets, a single teacher supplied with resources reaches an average of 30 students. The majority of elementary school students take booklets home and share the information with their families. So when you provide booklets to one teacher, your results are exponential. This single important touchpoint can result in hundreds of community members engaging with your message.

Powerful Anecdotal Evidence
Anecdotal evidence also indicates that outreach programs to elementary school children can have dramatic impacts. Case in point: Victoria Rosas, a third-grade student in California, prevented a very dangerous, potentially fatal situation because she learned important safety information from a booklet distributed to her school by the local utility.

A power line had fallen in Victoria’s backyard, and heavy rainfall had flooded the area around the home. Victoria helped her family respond safely and stay away from the downed line. Had the family exited the house through the rear, they almost certainly would have been electrocuted. “She saved the whole family,” said her mother.

Victoria explained that her knowledge of the situation came from an illustrated utility company safety booklet. “When the power line went down, I knew what to do because we had read this safety booklet in class,” she said.

There are many compelling stories similar to this one all over the country, proving that utility education programs do raise the level of public safety. View a video of Victoria’s story, along with Kiera Gray’s natural gas safety story, at www.culverco.com/proof-utility-public-outreach-prevents-accidents.

Value to Your Stakeholders and Your Business
Public safety outreach to elementary schools is proven to be a highly effective way to educate the public and prevent accidents. What’s more, research shows utility outreach enhances public perception of the utility and boosts customer satisfaction. When receiving information that they consider valuable, customers view a utility as a company that is making a concerted effort to help the community.

This has positive financial implications. According to J.D. Power, “utility industry research has identified quantifiable links between customer satisfaction and key financial metrics, such as profitability and credit ratings. In fact, a highly satisfied customer base can be a leading indicator of return on equity for utilities.”

The financial benefits can include lower insurance premiums (increased safety in the service territory lowers the risk) and a positive influence on regulators when negotiating rate increases. This makes school safety outreach a sound investment, helping to meet departmental goals and benefit the enterprise as a whole.

The implications are clear: Safe business is smart business.

Utility Budget Planning and the Culture of Prevention

All utilities face budget challenges. Even those with extensive public safety outreach programs need to continue to promote and maintain internal support and funding for these initiatives. The key to creating an enduring and effective safety program that survives budget cycles is to create a Culture of Prevention throughout the utility.

By promoting a Culture of Prevention, an economic case can be made to support—and even increase—funding for public safety outreach.

A Culture of Prevention recognizes that public safety measures deliver significant outcomes for the business: saving lives, preventing injuries, reducing costs, mitigating litigation, and enhancing the utility’s reputation and the value of its brand. (To learn more about the positive correlation between robust public safety communications and community stewardship satisfaction, check out the industry-focused customer impact report from J.D. Power.) When considered as part of a utility’s overall business strategy, a Culture of Prevention has the potential for increasing value for just about every internal stakeholder.

To build an economic case for public safety outreach, consider the following elements:

  • Identify the potential for cost savings to the utility and its customers through reduced claims and claims administration.
  • Solicit input from risk management and insurance sources, who may be able to help you demonstrate the benefits of public safety in mitigating risk—through efforts to cap or even reduce insurance premiums.
  • Research the positive impact of public safety outreach programs on preventing outages and maintaining system reliability.
  • Demonstrate the positive impacts of your public safety outreach initiatives on customer opinions and satisfaction with the utility…research has shown that improving customers’ perceptions about public safety enhances a utility’s reputation.
  • Show the effects of your utility’s public safety program on rate case outcomes.
  • Find internal public safety champions across the enterprise and bring them into your discussions about the need for promoting safety awareness among at-risk customers.

When possible, document and internally share your own public safety success stories. For example, we know of a public safety manager for a large combination company who shared the praises her utility received from the parents of a 12-year-old child. The child received utility-sponsored safety education in her school and used this knowledge to save the lives of her family by preventing them from approaching a downed power line in their yard. Success stories such as this one go a long way toward raising visibility of your program and communicating its value.

As the utility industry continues to transform, public safety managers will remain under enormous pressure to reduce expenses and maximize value. Public safety initiatives, as with all areas of a utility’s business, are being carefully scrutinized. However, by linking your outreach internally to your utility’s Culture of Prevention, your management and customers will experience the dramatic results of your safety efforts, through saved lives as well as improved reliability and enhanced value.