The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with John Di Stasio of Large Public Power Council
John was formerly the General Manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) from June of 2008 through April of 2014. He has an extensive background in the energy industry, but is also the owner of Di Stasio Vineyards in Amador County, California. In short, he’s a man of diverse – and fascinating - interests. He’s also smart, direct and wise – a great candidate to share common sense about energy communications.
Our thanks to John for sharing his time and insight with us – and you.
Q: The American energy market seems to be in a constant state of flux. Does that apply to the large public power companies that are your members as well? How do they - and you - communicate in a time of such confusion and contention?
A: Change has certainly been a constant over the past several years. That said, the change offers utilities an opportunity to expand their value proposition and strengthen their relationship with customers. Many of the changes are driven by technology and customer interest and less so from policy and regulation. Understanding these dynamics require understanding the potential of technologies being deployed outside of our sector. The consumer/utility relationship is going to change, enabled by technology, so it is important to lean in to that reality. When any organization seeks to change it’s great to start with a strong understanding of the existing customer relationship. With that baseline, a strong communication plan can be developed to close the gap between the existing relationship and the desired one. These changes are a large focus of the Large Public Power Council members and they start with a direct relationship with consumers and communities, so they start from a good place.
Q: What challenges do you and your members have in communicating about the value and relevance of your industry generally? How do you address them?
A: There is so much competition for the attention of consumers or stakeholders, messages need to be succinct, compelling and aligned with consumer perceptions. Absent that, it is very hard to influence or educate key constituencies. We believe that we have a unique business model given our direct relationship with consumer/owners and the access and accountability that comes with local governance. Even so, it is not well understood and many times there is little interest in the value and relevance that can come from the public power business model. The best way to address these communication barriers is to reflect the value through both words and deeds. Our strength is our connection to communities so being visible in the community through volunteerism, support for economic development and environmental stewardship all combine to tell the story and reflect the value and relevance.
Q: Your background is fascinating: you've been a public power company chief executive, you're now the leader of the public power industry's trade association and you also own a vineyard. What have you learned about communications from those different leadership positions?
A: If there is a common denominator in all those roles it’s one I learned from many years of farming. In farming, many factors are outside of your control with the most significant being weather. Given that reality it is important to hedge the risk you can, but, more importantly, to manage those elements that you do control very well. Whether running a utility, representing utilities in an association or growing grapes it’s very important to understand your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. All three of those ventures have made for an interesting career. Communicating flows from that self-awareness. It is always important to be factual, credible and sincere. Those are certainly elements that can be controlled.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Active listening before communicating is critical to a message hitting its mark. Also, brevity is important. If something can be communicated and understood with a simple and concise message, then a more extensive and complicated one isn’t necessarily helpful.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Do your best to know your audience and always be factual and credible. People generally appreciate authenticity even if a message is difficult.