The Story of Solar: How So Many Journalists Get it Wrong & How You Can Help

NPR ran a story last Tuesday in part covering the SolarCity expansion to the East Coast and the solar lease. Let's take a look at a few easy ways that solar installers can help journalists better cover the story of solar even without the help of a major PR/communications firm. Solar's story is complicated, much like other rapidly growing and changing technical industries. Journalists, already pressured to do more with less, are challenged to get the story right, especially when the underlying business models behind the facts are changing.

Incentive programs and public policies are often changing, as are business models and offerings of companies that sell and install solar energy. Consumers interested in purchasing solar energy are looking for unbiased, third-party resources to help them understand the value and credibility of solar energy. Reports that journalists and bloggers file in trusted news sources, from local papers and broadcast news all the way up to larger media brands like the Tribune, are often a big part of this research process.

Organizations like the Solar Energy Industries Association, Vote Solar, and the Database of States Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency are all great resources that reporters can follow for high-quality information about changing policies in solar and other renewable energy technologies.

Independent industry experts can also be a great resource for providing local, state, or national context for policy changes or comment on major industry press releases including technology advances, new business models, and industry analysis on trends. Experts can also provide contacts for other relevant individuals or resources based on specific inquiries.

What you can do as a journalist:

Earlier in my career, I was the press relations manager for a solar installation company I worked for. As I worked with reporters all over New England on pieces, it became clear to me that the technical details often were bogging down the real stories. Not all reporters covering the specific solar story were technically oriented or even knew anything about solar energy. Many solar stories start just repeating numbers and jargon from a press release without any context for what these mean: PV, kW, kilowatt-hours, etc. Many average readers do not know much about electricity and electrical theory. While many solar stories up until now have included a lot of sometimes confusing technical information about a solar energy, reporters can do an even better job going forward contextualizing and providing meaning for these solar projects or trends and hence provide more value for their readership.

The public needs solar explained to them in terms they can easily understand. Here are some questions reporters can ask a solar expert when researching solar energy stories:

  1. What is the percentage of the facility's energy the system will offset?
  2. What does that amount of energy equate to in terms of number of residential homes it can power?
  3. What is the equivalent in football fields of the area occupied by the installed system?
  4. What is the ownership and financial model (who actually owns the system and how was it paid for)?
  5. Who is benefitting from the electricity generated?
  6. Who is benefitting from the rebate/tax credits/other tertiary benefits?
  7. Is this solar story part of a local, state, or national trend?

What you can do as a solar installer:

Many solar installers with small marketing budgets are overlooking PR based on stereotypes from TV shows like Mad Men and other preconceived notions of Madison-Avenue-style marketing.

At a time when journalists are under even more pressure to cover more stories for less of a paycheck and with solar being such a hot media topic there are some ways solar installers can help journalists get the story right.

Solar installers should:

  • Write an Easy-to-Understand Press Release. Stick to the facts. Use terms consistently and omit common industry jargon and acronyms.
  • Be Helpful. Provide additional follow-up resources for the journalist outside of your branded content. Give ways to contact you and times you are available.
  • Be Responsive. Journalists are on deadlines. Work with them to get the story right, even if it means putting your inbox aside for a few minutes.