By Association Adviser staff
This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Jeanne LaBella, vice president for publishing at the American Public Power Association (APPA), the Washington, D.C.-based service organization for the nation's 2,000 community-owned electric utilities and their 46 million customers.
ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Jeanne, can you tell us a little about your background and the varied publishing roles and responsibilities you’ve had at APPA?
JEANNE LABELLA: I have two journalism degrees and before coming to APPA in 1978—that’s right, more than 30 years ago! [laughing]—I was editor of a monthly financial services magazine and was assistant editor for a technical consulting firm’s journal that was implementing the Universal Product Code during the UPC’s infancy. I began my APPA career as a reporter for the weekly newsletter, then became its editor. Eventually, I became editor of Public Power magazine and supervisor of the weekly newsletter. Now my responsibilities include supervision of our art department and the library and website. But at the end of the day, it’s all about delivering timely, relevant information to our members.
AA: Both your industry and the APPA have evolved a great deal during your tenure. How has the difficult economy and global energy situation affected APPA’s recent advocacy efforts and member communication initiatives?
JL: Like many organizations, we’ve had staff reductions since 2008, meaning those of us who remain are doing more work. In January 2009, we stopped mailing our weekly newsletter to 10,000 readers and began delivering it electronically. This was a dramatic change, as the weekly newsletter has always been our most valued, tangible and recognizable service according to our member surveys. We coupled that change with the decision to deliver our daily electronic newsletter to all personnel of all of our member utilities. So, rather than diminished service, our members receive enhanced service and our members have reacted positively to this decision.
AA: Any drawbacks to this strategy?
JL: Well, broadcast e-mail messages often get caught in spam filters, meaning many of our readers have lost track of us. We've spent a fair amount of effort troubleshooting those problems. But, the move away from print to electronic-only delivery of our newsletter trimmed $250,000 from our annual expenses and spared us the aggravation of having a weekly periodical delayed by postal service issues.
AA: What are APPA’s biggest challenges and concerns with respect to its member communications initiatives?
JL: Time is our biggest challenge. We once published a weekly newsletter and that seemed challenging. Now, with no extra staff (albeit with more streamlined production methods) we are producing a weekly newsletter and a daily newsletter, plus publishing content on the Web. We are posting material on Facebook and Twitter and producing podcasts and short video clips to accompany our Web presence.
AA: What is the toughest thing about recruiting and retaining younger members?
JL: The members of our association are organizations, mostly municipally owned electric utilities—for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The CEOs and other top officials of those organizations are familiar with APPA and its benefits. But our challenge is to make sure the next generation of industry leaders we serve recognizes the value of the national association and the services we provide.
AA: So how do you customize your communications efforts for the younger set?
JL: We make our e-newsletters, our print magazine and the member-only areas of our website available to every staff person of every member utility. This keeps APPA top of mind for up-and-coming managers in the industry. Our member forums (list serves) are very popular with younger utility workers, as are our Facebook page, our Twitter feed and our webinars.
AA: While younger members are often stereotyped as tech-addicted, many association leaders tell us their young members want real-world experiential relationships with their association. What’s your take?
JL: Our annual Lineworkers Rodeo (a safety- and skills-oriented competition for power line workers) has become very popular as has our Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) program. RP3 is a benchmarking initiative which recognizes and honors utilities that maintain high achievements in four areas of utility operations: providing reliable electric service, safety, research & development and work force development. We also provide a wide range of in-person training programs that are a draw for younger people.
AA: Sounds like you’re being very proactive on the youth front. How do you address the perception from older/longstanding members who may feel APPA has geared everything toward the younger generation?
JL: The older folks recognize that the future lies with the younger generation and they want to make sure the industry going forward is in good hands. They are happy to be mentors and a resource for younger people. Even my 80-year-old mother has a Facebook page—so older folks are keeping up with trends invented by the under-25 set.
AA: With so many information options available today, who does APPA compete most directly with for the attention of its members?
JL: There’s a flood of competition out there. As new energy technologies and utility ownership models emerge, new organizations are being created to perform services similar to those provided by APPA. Independent business publishers have made big moves in recent years to expand beyond publishing into meeting sponsorship. Meetings are also a big part of the association world, and one of my senior colleagues goes ballistic whenever we accept an advertisement from a publishing company that is sponsoring a meeting because he thinks they’re competing with us.
AA: Sounds like they are competing with you.
JL: To some extent they are, but APPA publications and events are tailored to the specific interests of local publicly owned electric utilities, so an hour spent reading our magazine or a day or two spent at one of our training programs yields a much higher quotient of relevant information than time spent with publications or events geared to a broader utility or energy industry audience. There’s room and a need for all of it.
AA: You recently launched Public Power Media, a highly anticipated destination for your members. What’s the early consensus?
JL: We launched our new media website in mid-January. By the first week of March, we were re-tooling it. I didn’t think we’d be changing things so soon. We want to do a better job of presenting our daily and weekly newsletters online. We want to get away from artificial publishing schedules and move to publishing stories in real-time. So, for example, if our editors attend a congressional hearing on a Tuesday morning and write a story about it Tuesday afternoon, we publish that story as soon as it has been written and edited. Why hold the news back until the next morning?
AA: Are there any other communication strategy shifts you can share with us?
JL: We are consolidating the way our “daily” and “weekly” newsletters are displayed on the website. These two periodicals carry the same stories—they simply serve different segments of our membership. Some members want news every day and they appreciate having it in the ‘small bites’ of a daily newsletter. Others prefer to receive an e-newsletter only once a week. We’ve found that utility managers (CEOs), executives and middle managers prefer the daily news because they are engaged every day in the utility world. Elected policymakers (utility governing board or a city council) prefer the weekly newsletter.
AA: What can other association publishers and communication directors learn from the success you've had with Public Power Media?
JL: For anyone building a consolidated media site (and I highly recommend it), be sure to have flexible content management system templates that allow you to change things as reader interests and technology change. Branding identity requires a consistent appearance, of course—and that’s long been a hallmark of our communications strategy. But, as technology changes and readers express their preferences, we need to be nimble in responding to those changes.
AA: What are APPA's key selling points to members and industry suppliers?
JL: For members, APPA does the heavy lifting for municipally owned electric utilities in Washington, D.C. Our lobbyists and our policy specialists work every day to convey the needs and concerns of local publicly owned electric utilities to members of Congress and their staffs. For suppliers, APPA is the ‘public power tent’—we are where our members are engaged in confronting the public policy and operational challenges they face on a daily basis. Our members trust us. There’s a warm, fuzzy feeling that pervades our conferences and meetings.
AA: APPA seems to have good culture for innovation. How is that maintained in today’s era of tight budgets and widespread job insecurity?
JL: Innovation is most needed—and perhaps easiest to tap—when economic times are tough. To wit: our change from print to electronic with our weekly newsletter and the accompanying decisions to roll out our daily newsletter (previously restricted to subscribers who paid extra) as part of our basic membership service.
AA: If an extra $100,000 suddenly landed in your communications budget, how would you invest it?
JL: I’d hire a new full-time editor/writer to help us cover breaking news and publish stories in a more timely way. The rest would be allocated to my budget for contract writers and photographers.
AA: So, what’s keeping you up at night?
JL: Usually whatever I did not get done during the day just past. There are so many things to do in a day and so many unexpected “fires” that come up on any given day.
Rate this article 5 (Excellent) to 1 (Poor). Send ratings and comments here.