Cost of energy crisis: it’s not a hammer-and-nail situation

The psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In psychology this cognitive bias is called “the law of the instrument”, or following Maslow, “the law of the hammer”.

But, what is the relevance of it to the cost of energy crisis? Well, if you are a communications expert working in the energy sector, you might think that the crisis can be solved purely at the level of corporate communications. And if you are a branding expert you could fall into the trap of thinking that it could be branded away. Perhaps with a cosmetic design tweaks, a bigger marketing budget…

However, at the very centre of the cost of energy crisis is the very real problem… of the cost of energy. This is a problem that might not go away until the underlying conditions have been resolved. In other, words we might have entered a period of high energy prices, driven by geopolitical or technological factors.

So, how should communications professionals (whether in public relations or marketing), adapt to the “new normal”? Especially, as the cost of energy is a contributing factor to the “cost of living crisis”, a situation where people have to make hard choices between various items of essential household expenditure (clothing vs food vs energy vs transport).

For many people around the world the crisis is real. I would advise any communications or marketing professional to start by acknowledging it. Don’t communicate “around it”, but with the crisis in mind. Here is some advice on crisis communications and branding from my own practice, as well as from my latest book “Sustainable Energy Branding—Helping to Save the Planet” (Routledge, 2023):

  1. Observe the “3Cs” of crisis communication: experienced communicators, whether in public relations or marketing, agree that in a crisis you should stick to the 3Cs. The strange thing is that when you look at the literature, you find that everyone seems to have a different list of Cs. I have seen courage, clarity, curiosity, consistency, care and control all being mentioned. In my experience, you should focus (in this order) on compassion, clarity and consistency.
  2. Be helpful, not patronising: Don’t tell people who might have a major household budgeting problem things they already know. Don’t make light of it. Start with an “active listening” attitude, and try to see what is there within your own corporate processes and procedures that might help your customers.
  3. Lead by example: Any crisis will require behavioural change. As Mahatma Gandhi memorably said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Does this crisis call for energy conservation? Then switch off that flashy neon sign above your offices. Does it call for fiscal prudence? Why don’t you postpone the blingy office refurbishment project? Don’t tell your customers to do something, while you’re doing the opposite.
  4. Be part of the big solution: When it became clear that the cost of energy crisis would extend into the winter of 2022/23, Steven Fitzpatrick, the CEO of household gas and electricity retailer OVO Energy, unveiled a bold set of policy proposals. They were designed to help bill-payers. This was in early September. Two weeks later the United Kingdom’s government came up with a similar set of proposals. If you’ve got a big idea that makes sense, show that you care.
  5. Think ahead—build a strong brand: As any branding expert will tell you, a strong, credible, public-spirited brand will have lower rates of customer attrition, and greater amounts of public trust vested in it. This helps when you are not at fault. Your customers will be more likely to weigh the evidence, and less likely to act impulsively by finding another provider.

Fridrik Larsen | LinkedIn