The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Judy Rader of Exelon
One of the delights of conducting this series over the past several years (FYI that we’re now well past two dozen interviews!) is the opportunity to reconnect with former clients and other contacts. That’s what we’re doing this month with our latest Common Sense Colloquy Q&A. It’s our pleasure and privilege to be talking with Judy Rader, the senior vice president of corporate affairs, communications and philanthropy for Exelon Corporation. We had the good fortune to work with Judy and her colleagues at Exelon more than a decade ago and we’re delighted to catch up with her now.
Judy leads integrated communications strategy, planning and execution for Exelon and manages the company’s philanthropic activities, including nearly $50 million in annual giving as well as the volunteer efforts of thousands of the Fortune 100 company’s employees. Judy joined the company in 2005 and has worked on communications at Exelon Corp. and its subsidiaries ComEd and Exelon Generation. Judy’s career at Exelon and its affiliates has included leadership of communications related to nuclear plant preservation, a dam relicensing and two mergers.
Prior to joining Exelon fifteen years ago, Judy was a vice president at Edelman working with a variety of leading corporate clients. Earlier in her career, she worked for PR21 (now Zeno Group) and Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Judy has a Master of Science Degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism and English from the University of Maryland.
Our thanks to Judy for sharing her insight with us – and you.
Q: You manage corporate affairs, communications and philanthropy. That’s like three jobs in one! What do they have in common and what have you found to be the key to ensuring integration in your management of them?
A: All of these functions are about engaging our stakeholders and informing how they view us – our reputation. And we have a diverse range of stakeholders at Exelon, including employees, customers, community leaders, suppliers, investors, policymakers and the media. Stakeholder engagement is all about two-way communication – sharing our message but also listening to and responding to feedback.
Companies that do this well are authentic, credible and ultimately gain stakeholders’ trust. Exelon’s purpose is powering a cleaner and brighter future for our customers and communities. It’s not just a catchy slogan – it’s meaningful because it’s backed by our partnerships, our actions and our behaviors. We have to deliver on that purpose for our stakeholders every day, in everything we do. That’s how we earn and keep their trust.
Q: We’re only a few months into the global pandemic, but news reports indicate we have many more months to go. How are you adjusting your proactive corporate communications to reflect the new realities of daily life? What lessons have you learned so far?
A: Right from the beginning of the pandemic, we shifted our messaging to focus on the needs of our employees, customers and communities. We wanted our stakeholders to know that we recognized their challenges, understood their needs, and were doing all we could to help. That included donating more than $6 million to national and local COVID-19 relief organizations, suspending disconnections and late payment fees for customers, and offering new benefits for employees, including expanded sick leave, emergency childcare reimbursement and wellness support.
We recently surveyed our employees on the effectiveness of our internal communications, and that provided useful learnings that will shape our work going forward. For example, most employees see Exelon as a top source of information about the virus, second only to major news organizations and state and local governments. Employees reported that our communications are credible (84%), informative (81%) and engage leadership effectively (80%). However, our employees want more frequent communication from their direct supervisors. And they’re looking for more information on the impact of the virus on our ability to operate and guidelines for returning to the workplace. We’re actively working to address those survey findings, and we continue to adapt both our internal and external communications to stakeholder input and feedback.
Q: You’ve built quite a career at Exelon, but you were already an experienced communicator when you joined the company 15 years ago having served as a vice president at Edelman among other PR roles. What have these experiences taught you and how have you put those lessons to work in your current position?
A: Without a doubt, it’s all about the team. Building a successful communications function means attracting and retaining the best talent. That’s the first step. The next – and equally important – step is to create a team culture based on inclusion, collaboration, continuous improvement and mutual respect. I am fortunate at Exelon to have an extremely talented, diverse and high-performing team of more than 100 communications professionals, who are committed to excellence in everything we do. The best thing about our team is that we all genuinely care about each another and help each other succeed, while delivering the highest caliber strategic communications work.
Currently, our team is working on a Strategic Business Partner initiative that is about redefining the work of the communications function. It’s based on the tenet that our team can provide greater value and improve business and communications outcomes by becoming more of a strategic advisor to the business and our leaders. We are empowering our team members to advocate for what’s in the best interest of the company and our reputation with stakeholders. As a result, our communications team has become a key strategic business partner with senior leadership in making decisions and driving change.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: I’m going old school here. Back at the University of Maryland J-School in the 1990s, I took many classes on writing, reporting and fact-checking. One of my professors told us, “If your mother says she loves you…check it out.” It made us laugh at the time, but the advice has stuck with me because it’s about accuracy – and more importantly – credibility. To gain customers’ and other stakeholders’ trust, we must be committed to open, honest, transparent and accurate communications. The days of “spin” and “PR flacks” are long gone– we operate at a far higher standard now. That’s especially true in an age where anyone can be a “citizen journalist,” and we are constantly faced with misinformation. Our reputation is built on our credibility, so we had better get our facts right.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Every good communication must start with the audience in mind. That’s not news to communications professionals. Strategic, data-driven communications are more important now than ever. Deeply understanding your audience – through quantitative and qualitative research – is still the gold standard of effective communications. Knowing your audience – what messages and messengers resonate with them, and when and how they prefer to receive communications – is essential to a communication’s success. Political campaigns mastered audience polling and research long ago, but it’s equally important in corporate campaigns. There’s no substitute for data.