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Colorado Springs Utilities spends millions on multimedia to reach an already-captive audience of local customers

Back in the day, all a good promoter needed were a good set of lungs and a provocative pitch. Today, trying to get attention that way is like whispering in Times Square.

So what do you do? Blog? Tweet? Issue press releases? Go on radio? TV? YouTube?

Colorado Springs Utilities does all of that and then some, at a cost to ratepayers of $3.25 million this year, including $752,542 in salaries and benefits for the 10-member PR team.

Exactly how Utilities' Corporate Communications Department will spend that money wasn't immediately available, but last year it ran up a $161,344 bill for billboards alone, and spent another $1.56 million on brochures, newsletters and other printed materials, as well as television, radio, newspaper and online promotions.

Utilities spokesman Mark Murphy, who manages the Corporate Communications Department — one of four that fall within the 20-person Public Affairs Division — says his budget represents "a great value" at less than a third of 1 percent of Utilities' $1.11 billion annual budget. But two City Council members question the spending, and one wants to talk cuts and layoffs.

Plenty on the plate

Unlike the city's other major enterprise, Memorial Health System, Utilities doesn't compete for customers. If you live here, you're probably turning to Springs Utilities for water, sewer, gas and electrical service. But Murphy says competition isn't the issue.

"For any business to be effective today, it has to effectively communicate with its customers," he says. "We have to make sure our customers are informed, regardless of whether or not we have competition. Our core purpose here is to help people be safe and to wisely manage their utility use to keep their bills as low as possible."

He says serving a community intensely interested in city government means keeping customers up to speed on everything from rate changes to big projects, such as the Southern Delivery System water pipeline. Murphy's team also fields up to a dozen media inquiries per day.

To reach its service-area population of nearly 500,000, Murphy's staffers turn to an arsenal of channels to convey messages of conservation and safety, such as what to do if your furnace's pilot light goes out. Billboards, he says, are a good value, because they reach 20,000 customers a day. In recent years, spending on print media has faded, while radio and television costs are up, Utilities figures show.

The biggest shift, not surprisingly, is to the Web. In 2008, Utilities spent $54,241 for online production, but last year shelled out nine times that amount for production and media charges in what Murphy calls mostly "start-up" costs for video production, Web design and social media. Utilities spokeswoman Natalie Eckhart says the $483,609 tab included production of "webisodes" for YouTube, plus video clips and animated files placed on media sites targeting Springs customers, including hgtv.com and diynetwork.com.

In return, Utilities has attracted 278 Twitter followers, 243 Facebook fans and 12,000 views of its YouTube clips. For perspective, the Springs Police Department's public information officer has 456 Twitter followers.

Murphy takes credit for helping persuade customers to cut water use, which last year was 6.8 billion gallons fewer than the 30.5 billion gallons used in the pre-drought year of 2001.

"The drought challenged us to communicate across the community, and a lot of that is repetition," he says. "Paid media gives us that, the ability to target."

Utilities gets help from Visual Image, an advertising consultant based in Oklahoma City with a Springs office, which receives a $60,000 annual retainer. It also pays E Source, a Boulder-based researcher of energy efficiency, customer communications and marketing.

Positive rankings

Murphy notes pollster J.D. Power rated Springs Utilities 12th out of 121 utilities evaluated nationally for customer communications.

"The reason: We listen to our customers and provide them useful information using a cost-effective mix of media they prefer," he writes in an e-mail.

But Vice Mayor Larry Small says the city is not listening.

"The public's been adamant year after year," Small says. "They don't want to see these things [ads]. Why do we keep doing it? [Utilities officials] say, 'We're doing it for public education.' You can put all that information on Utilities' Web site and let [customers] access it. You don't have to run all those TV ads."

Small says money spent on advertising was one reason he voted against the 2010 budget, and he suggests Murphy's department as a target for cutbacks, including layoffs.

Councilor Sean Paige, appointed in October, hasn't yet studied the communications budget but wants to.

"At a time when everyone else is cutting back, there's no harm in re-evaluating how we do these functions," he says. "I do intend to delve into it as time goes on."

Besides Murphy's operation, the Public Affairs Division has branches that monitor legislation and environmental regulations and "manage issues" of high public interest, such as forming regional water partnerships. To do all that, the division will spend $6.1 million this year.

A few blocks away at City Hall, Sue Skiffington-Blumberg has lost a third of her public communications budget and a number of staff to budget cuts — she has only two full-timers left — but maintains she'll get the job done on less than $600,000 this year.

"We have legislative affairs," she says. "We handle issues. We do focus groups. We do outreach. We also handle all the [City Council] agenda, and we handle all the Colorado Open Records Act requests, just like they do. We do everything they do.

"Would we like to be able to have a more rich tool kit? Yes, but at the end of the day, we will still get our messages out."

zubeck@csindy.com

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