PR Firm Needed to Lay the Groundwork for a Price Hike at BC Hydro

Steve’s breakdown: Hydro has put out a call for 10 research companies it will “pre-qualify” and use as needed to gauge public opinion with polls and surveys.

BURNABY, Canada: B.C. Hydro wants to keep a close eye on the public mood and have a mass of communications people on standby as it moves to hike rates and redefine the province’s energy future.

Hydro has put out a call for 10 research companies it will “pre-qualify” and use as needed to gauge public opinion with polls and surveys.

It also wants as many as 15 companies waiting in the wings to provide media and public relations advice — a move that appears contrary to advice it received only months ago that it had too many communications staff.

The companies would be inked to three-year deals with Hydro, with the option of renewals.

The researching contracts will let Hydro call on companies to “conduct qualitative and/or quantitative research to gain insight or to assist with support decision making based on the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of the general public; B.C. Hydro stakeholders, residential and business customers,” according to a request for proposals on the government’s B.C. Bid website.

The renewed focus on public opinion and media management comes as the Crown corporation in charge of B.C.’s power moves to raise rates as much as 3.9 per cent in both 2012 and 2013.

Hydro had asked for a much higher increase, but ended up cutting jobs and finding internal savings after the government turned down the request.

B.C. Hydro also took a public beating in the legislature last year for its use of deferral accounts to push billions worth of expenses into future years, allowing it to show annual profits that B.C.’s auditor general says don’t really exist.

Hydro will also be in charge of redrawing the province’s energy self-sufficiency plans, after Premier Christy Clark announced a new natural gas strategy this month that alters the province’s long-term energy goals.

The push for more communications experts appears at odds with the recommendations of a group of provincial deputy ministers, released last August.

The deputy ministers noted that Hydro was overstaffed in its communications office, with 142 people compared with 187 communications personnel employed by the entire B.C. government.

The 15 communication companies would be pre-qualified and ready to provide Hydro with media advice, including training, writing press releases, analyzing issues, conducting risk management and organizing public meetings, according to a Hydro document.

Hydro cited the need for media relations because of a number of major projects, including the Site C dam, redeveloping the John Hart Generating Station in Campbell River and improving transmission to Vancouver city centre.

B.C. Hydro said in a statement Tuesday the contracts have no value until the corporation chooses to call upon one of the companies for service.

Hydro spends $200,000 annually on research, senior vice-president Renee Smith-Valade said in the statement.

Hiring short-term contracts can be more efficient and follows recommendations in the government review, Smith-Valade said.

Hydro has cut its communications department by 30 per cent in the past year, she added.

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