It’s a tough time to be a utility company in the UK. 

If you’re not being slapped down by the press then you’re being taken to task by your customers across social media and review sites. And then when you think you’ve got round the corner, along comes the government to give you a punch on the nose with new legislation.

Let’s take water providers. Due to new standards set by the regulator, they now have to please customers in a way they have never had to before. New proposals to allow households to choose their supplier from 2020 will put them under increased pressure to demonstrate their effectiveness to bill payers.

Suppliers of energy, broadband and telecoms are fighting in a similar landscape - although of course they all face their own unique challenges. They all offer essential services. But they are not sexy products. Unlike the latest iPhone or shiny new car, you can’t touch or hold them. You’re most likely to engage with your customers when something goes wrong or it’s time to switch. It is a passive relationship.

Meanwhile there are dozens of independent challenger brands hungry to snatch your customers – helped by customer satisfaction reports by the likes of uSwitch and Which? placing smaller companies at the top of their league tables.

To survive you must apply high engagement thinking to a low engagement market.

This means going beyond your core proposition – and devising a customer-centric communications strategy that concentrates on the amazing things you enable them to achieve. This will give you credibility and sustainability; inspiring trust and loyalty, arguably the two most vital indicators of a successful brand.

Some utilities are already making giant steps towards proving their value to customers and demonstrating purpose. Shell’s  #makethefuturecampaign and Anglian Water’s regeneration of the town of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire are among the best. Oil giants are moving into renewables and snapping up young energy firms with passion and purpose, such as BP’s backing of Pure Planet. So it is clear some big players are realising the benefits of brands with purpose beyond the pipes and the wires.

But many still have a long way to go in an era where customers demand to know what is going on, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and whether you’re doing well, badly or averagely. And how it is going to get better. The way to achieve this is by placing brilliant communications at the heart of your evolution.

There are five pillars that every great comms team at a utility company must adhere to:

Change the way you think about communicating with your employees and your customers. Don’t just be a storyteller, be a story do-er. Don’t just broadcast your news, let your community shape it. Run your internal comms team like it’s a newsroom and free up your press office to be transparent, dynamic and proactive instead of defensive and reactive.

Most people don’t care about their utility companies – but putting people at the centre of your strategy will evoke greater customer participation, emotion and relatability. Send your leaders out to meet your customers, run events, sponsor community projects, deliver your key messages through memorable experiences and give your audience something to talk to their friends and family about. Open up your business and put it on show to reveal your passions and objectives.

Your campaigns must genuinely chime among your target audience. Don’t play hit and hope. Find a platform that is bold, bright and different - something that will make your previously disengaged customers think “wow, I am proud”. Bring your PR, brand and internal comms teams in from the point of conception of the idea. It needs to not just be great for the company but great for journalists and social too. Find a campaign with legs - momentum and longevity are crucial for success. Then measure the campaign to its maximum so you can play it back in the boardroom, win awards, demonstrate ROI and retain – or even increase - your comms budgets.

Stop thinking of yourself as simply a supplier and start behaving like a brand. Know what you stand for, understand your purpose, live by your brand values and focus on action. Take a position, don't just have a positioning. Telling your story consistently and with momentum not only builds brand awareness, it also tells the world what you care about, the things that matter to you and the place you have in the community.  Align your social media, your internal and external comms and deviate at your peril.

Too many comms departments at utility firms spend too much time firefighting. When you’re being attacked in the media, it is tempting to push your gloves in front of your face and peep out from behind them when you hope the blows have stopped. As put by US speaker Steven R. Covey, you can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into. You will be respected more by customers, journalists, your employees and stakeholders if you get onto the front foot and take positive action to fix it. The age of spin is dead. Transparency rules.

- James Saville