The BBC reported yesterday that, according to Ofgem estimates, the UK’s infamous ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers are set to double their profit margins for next year (8%) as compared to a year ago (4%). In a hostile environment (to put it mildly), it’s a headline statistic that’s sure to rankle and makes for yet more bad publicity for an already unpopular group.

In a sense, the raised hackles are understandable: consumers living through a recession are likely to be touchy when their energy suppliers go from making £53 profit from them (average dual fuel customer) to making £106 – especially when bills seem to be going only one way.

Except they’re not.

Because there’s another statistic buried in the report. A few paragraphs in, the article cites Ofgem as calculating that, in the same period, the average dual fuel bill is likely to fall by around £18 ‘as energy efficiency measures improve’.*

So wait, what is the story here? Is it that the UK’s energy giants’ rampant profiteering continues unabated? Or is it rather that these companies have simultaneously made themselves better businesses and reduced costs to their customers through innovation in and commitment to energy efficiency measures (which, it’s worth mentioning, may well also mean carbon reduction too)?

In reality, it’s probably a bit of both – there are two sides to every story. However, the sad fact for the beleaguered PR department is that it was only ever going to be told one way. It’s a lesson for others in the industry that a toxic reputation goes a long, long way towards poisoning even positive future stories, and all but ensures they’ll be negative wherever there is even a hint of ambivalence.

Many will argue that this is where the Big Six reap what they have sown and the disadvantages conferred are deserved. Perhaps this is the case, perhaps it isn’t. For PR practitioners it’s enough to take this as a reminder – prevention is always better than cure, and whatever you do in the present, a terrible reputation inherited from the past means a PR mountain to climb.

*In a separate but simultaneous announcement, Ofgem have predicted that bills will fall by £12 due to new rules relating to the distribution arms of the businesses. This has been reported alongside the profit story and as a story in its own right, but should not be confused with the separate reduction here.

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