Expert communications people are like the Hermione Grangers of companies: They may be less visible than their more famous counterparts, but they are indispensable to the epic.
Maybe you haven’t heard of Zadie Oleksiw yet. But you’re probably familiar with some of the campaigns she’s been involved with at Vote Solar, including California’s historic 100% clean energy bill last year, which was one of the first in a slew of 100% clean energy initiatives now emerging across the country.
Similarly, perhaps you don’t yet know the name Emily Rogers. But you know her work. Rogers is the producer behind Norton Rose Fulbright’s Currents, the go-to podcast for solar financiers.
Since 2012, Jamie Nolan has been working behind the scenes to raise the profile of the U.S. solar industry, previously as the Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative and now as the Principal of Nolan Strategic Communications.
In this special edition #Solar100, communications experts Zadie Oleksiw, Emily Rogers, and Jamie Nolan talk about how to execute effective campaigns, produce chart-topping podcasts, and leverage communications best practices to advance the solar industry.
ZADIE OLEKSIW, VOTE SOLAR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
Sarah Matsui: Your career has been dedicated to work in solar. How did you first get into renewable energy and communications work?
Zadie Oleksiw: I think like a lot of other people who work in this space, I’m very motivated by the idea of solving big problems. For me, that’s always been climate change. Obviously clean energy has so many other benefits—for public health and for the economy, for example—but personally, climate change is paramount.
I grew up outside of DC, where I got exposed to civic activism going to all sorts of environmental and foreign policy protests and rallies with my mom. I think those experiences taught me two things early on. One: we have to get engaged if we want to make change. And two: stopping the bad things from happening was one way to do it. I majored in environmental science, but it wasn’t until I interned at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) that I got excited about the opportunity to focus on promoting positive, proactive solutions instead of working to fight problems—although I really appreciate the essential role of campaigns and people doing that important work.
I returned to SEIA after I graduated and met Jamie Nolan, who was managing their communications at the time. She demonstrated an understanding and ability to effectively communicate a range of subject matter—like federal and state policy issues—and that really appealed to me. It was the first time I appreciated that good communications professionals play a substantial role in any organization. Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) was and continues to be another invaluable part of my professional development. CELI is a training program for clean energy professionals in the early stages of their careers and
designed to teach fellows the fundamentals of this sector—markets, finance, policy, and technology—while breaking down siloes across the industry. After I finished the fellowship I came on as a volunteer to develop the brand, lead the writing program, and launch its first fundraiser. If you’ve seen me or others gush about CELI before, it’s because it’s incredibly inspiring to be a part of a community of so many smart, driven people all committed to solving big problems.
Sarah Matsui: Last year when Adam Browning nominated you at SPI, he said, “Zadie is the ‘Solar Splainer of the Solar Movement.’ I think her ability to translate complex solar policy concepts from grid mod to rate design for non-wonks is worth celebrating.” In your experience, what is the solar movement and can you describe the role of communications in the movement?
Zadie Oleksiw: Well first, that’s a very kind compliment. I’ve been lucky enough to learn from the best, including from my amazing colleague Rosalind Jackson (who has also been described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the organization). One of things I love about Vote Solar—and that I think is apparent to anyone we work with—is that beyond this culture of respect, collegiality, and passion, everyone’s just really good at what they do. That makes my job a lot easier.
I’m not sure the best way to describe the solar movement beyond pointing to its sheer momentum. Solar is growing fast—in terms of megawatts built and customers served—and it’s also one of those rare topics that has so much broad support, that is creating jobs and boosting the economy, and that is absolutely essential for our future. It’s nice to come up for air every once in a while and get excited about being in this space.
I think the role of communications folks is to tell that story. Our job isn’t just to convince people—lawmakers, business leaders, investors, voters—that solar matters. We also have to persuade them to care enough to do something about it. Communications in any organization is a powerful tool to frame solar as an essential part of the American story. Every company in this space, regardless of whether it employs 5 or 500 people, can help tell that story.
From a policy perspective, renewable energy is also an area where something like 90% of voters across the aisle agree on it, yet in a lot of places that support hasn’t translated into meaningful policies. Part of the role of communications is bridging that gap between public opinion and positive policy outcomes.
Sarah Matsui: Your current position involves communicating wonky concepts to a broader audience. What does that kind of translation work require?
Zadie Oleksiw: I think two things. One is understanding the material. Second, is connecting it to their values—what people care about and what they want to hear. In any field, compelling people to care—and to take action—begins with appealing to their values. For example, I tried to make that connection in an article I wrote for The Hill a while back. The purpose of that piece was really to rebut an all-too-common anti-solar allegation in the same outlet, and my goal was to make a strong case that solar is good for the American people by appealing to widely-held values that would resonate with readers: saving money, controlling their own energy, and creating a clean and healthy environment.
Knowing who exactly your target audience is also really matters. Vote Solar has about 80,000 “activist” grassroots members all over the country and is working in regulatory and legislative campaigns in 24 states. Our membership is a tremendous resource to activate real people in all those states to make calls, write letters to their lawmakers, or show up to events. Generally, lawmakers care (or should care!) a lot about what their constituents have to say. Our role is to tell our grassroots members when an important solar issue is being decided and help them make their voices heard.
There’s so much political and geographic diversity across the country and we are always tailoring messages and messengers to the right audience. In California, for example, climate change is very much a part of our messaging because it’s an issue that’s important to lawmakers and the Governor and even regulators. But in South Carolina, where we’re working with a coalition to support a bill that, among other things, protects net metering, we would never utter those words. There, we talk about the energy choices that people want, that solar helps people save money, and that it’s an important job-creating part of the economy.
Vote Solar also does a ton of important regulatory work, like getting involved in rate design or integrated resources planning proceedings, that unfortunately doesn’t get as much love from the communications team. Most of it is a capacity issue—we’re a small team firing on all cylinders—but it’s something we hope to continue shining a light on as we grow!
EMILY ROGERS, NORTON ROSE FULBRIGHT U.S. DIRECTOR OF MARKETING, BRAND & DIGITAL
Sarah Matsui: Norton Rose Fulbright partner Keith Martin said, “Emily is the brains behind the catchy ads we run at industry conferences, the Project Finance NewsWire layout, our project finance microsite, the look of our annual project finance conference, and much more.” A lot of this communications work is wide-ranging and behind the scenes. First, can you explain your job to someone who isn’t as familiar with communications work?
Emily Rogers: I first started here as a graphic designer, and my role expanded over time. The 1,000+ lawyers I work with practice different types of law and regularly produce thought leadership. My job is to help get those ideas in front of the right audiences. What I find interesting about communications work is the process of taking a very complicated subject and distilling it into a digestible format. I’m pretty entrepreneurial, and I’ve been lucky to work at a firm that allows me the opportunity to learn new things.
Sarah Matsui: How do you define and measure success for communications?
Emily Rogers: Different projects will have different measurements of success, but everything in the end for me is measured by meaningful engagement: Are people asking you about it? How many people are downloading it? How many people are looking at our website? What are they doing when they are on our website—what are they clicking, what are they looking at, are they finding what they came to find? Those are all questions that we can track on the back end.
For example, with our Currents podcast, we can track the number of downloads and subscribers we have, our ranking on different charts, etc. It was very exciting for us the first time we got to one of the Apple Podcast charts in our second year. Now, we pretty much reside on the Business News chart, so we’re always trying to beat our highest position.
Sarah Matsui: I first met you after Todd Alexander interviewed our CEO Richard for Ep.23, Ep.46, and Ep.55 of Currents, which is widely recognized as the go-to podcast for solar financiers. People might not know this, but you’re the producer behind Currents. What does producing a podcast entail?
Emily Rogers: It involves every piece that you do see as well as what you don’t. A lot of the unseen work I do is with Todd to figure out what topics we want to cover and which guest experts to invite. We used to have a lot of internal guests because it was a new podcast—the firm has a great group of projects lawyers, so it was really easy for us to draw on our internal team. After we established the show and an audience, it’s been easy to approach other experts in the industry to have them speak on different subjects. We spend a lot of time reading articles, seeing who is speaking where, and meeting with our own lawyers to see what topics they have been studying up on recently. We’ve also reached a point now where we are fortunate to have some of our guests reach out to us first.
The beauty of the podcast is that it’s very comfortable for our guests to do the interview because it’s not live. So we can do all of the audio editing, removing any lulls or stutters, to make the interview sound as smooth as possible. We also make sure the guest gets to listen to the podcast before it goes out to ensure that they communicated their point clearly and accurately.
From there, we syndicate the podcast to all of the different forums, share on social media and start work on the next one.
Sarah Matsui: There are a lot of podcasts out there. What’s enabled Currents to pull away from the pack and gain the following that it has?
Emily Rogers: I think the number one factor would be Keith and his NewsWire, which I believe kWh Analytics has also been featured in previously. People know the quality of content they’re going to get from Norton Rose Fulbright because Keith is such a great content producer.
Another factor would be timing. We’ve been doing this for about two and a half years now. But two and a half years ago, podcasts weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. We were probably one of the earlier people to market with a podcast in this space, and I think that’s helped.
Subject matter is another influencing factor—specifically, the variety of subject matter and speaking to what people care about in that moment. We think about the different thought leadership pieces that have been produced over the past 20 years and try to identify what’s really popular right now. What are people searching for? What do people want to know more about? And then, from there, we work backwards to decide who our guests should be.
Sarah Matsui: So you really take a ‘first principles’ approach and start by breaking down the problem—what’s the need and what’s the demand? And then you work to meet that.
Emily Rogers: Right. Because Todd and I can think that something would be popular, but it’s so much easier and effective to use the analytics tools we have available, to look at our website and see what people are actually looking for.
I’m always asking myself, “What is the purpose of this? Why am I creating this?” I approach every project or problem with that framework, and if I can work backwards from there, I find that I have a much more creative and open result than if I just have my own fixed agenda.
Sarah Matsui: What’s an unexpected lesson you’ve learned as Currents’ producer?
Emily Rogers: It’s great to work with Todd who has the same devotion for this that I do, because I think it’s fairly shocking for people to realize how much work goes into good podcasting. I have a huge whiteboard in my office that has our plan for the next few months about what we’re going to produce, the status of each interview, our guests and their scheduling, etc. We originally started out doing Currents every other week, and now we’re doing it weekly. It’s a lot to produce, but it’s also really gratifying.
Sarah Matsui: Wow, I hadn’t appreciated that Currents has hit a weekly stride now.
Emily Rogers: Yes. You can thank my host for that. I said, ‘That’s ambitious, but okay.’ It’s a good thing that we have a good working relationship.
Sarah Matsui: Now that Currents has passed the 50 episodes milestone, have you noticed themes in what makes for a successful interview overall?
Emily Rogers: As a guest, if you’re approaching this as a conversation and ignore the microphone in front of you, the interview flows and comes across as friendlier and is just easier to listen to. Body language translates,
even when people can’t see you. If someone’s a real hand talker and they’re not moving their hands, then they’re going to sound stilted in the podcast.
Sarah Matsui: Are there communications best practices that you live by, that you think would be useful for either founders or fellow comms professionals within solar?
Emily Rogers: Maybe not best practices, but I have a few rules to live by. First, find the team that you love working with. I adore the lawyers that I work with, and I’ve worked with many of them for over eight years now.
Second, find different projects that you’re passionate about. There are always the jobs that we have to do every day that are not fun but still need to be done, and that’s fine. But find something that excites you so that you’re always going to want to go to work the next day.
Third, find ways to measure meaningful engagement and then share it with everybody. I like to share the number of downloads we have, any feedback we get, and how many likes and clicks we have on LinkedIn. Because it is nice for our lawyers and team members to see that people are listening and their work is having an impact.
JAMIE NOLAN, NOLAN STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS PRINCIPAL
Sarah Matsui: Your educational background is in communications and public relations, both of which are industry-agnostic skill sets. What made you decide to work in clean energy?
Jamie Nolan: I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s one of the areas in the United States that has the most to lose from climate change. It was ingrained in me early on that we need to care for the environment. My dad is a boat mechanic and electrician, and I was raised in a family that spent a lot of time out on the water, where I would see litter and pollution. We took trash bags with us and cleaned up trash every weekend we went out on the boat. I grew up with an understanding of the importance of action.
And as I got older and as I learned more about climate change and the specific threat to the Chesapeake Bay region, there was nothing that motivated me more. Without action, the places that I grew up could be under water in 100 years. That’s what led me to decide that climate change was my issue.
I first got into clean energy by working as the communications director for a climate change advocacy organization here in D.C. called the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. I got arrested in front of the White House for protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline. I consider myself an activist, and that’s what brought me to solar. I have found that when I really care about something, that’s when I produce my best work.
Sarah Matsui: Fellow #Solar100 leader Jen Bristol has called you “The Olivia Pope of Solar.” Pope is Scandal’s strategic counselor renowned for her ability to get things done. In your experience, what does effective communications get done?
Jamie Nolan: Effective communication is essential to solving any problem in business—whether it’s internal or external communication, you need to communicate and work with others.
It’s critical to have someone in your senior leadership team that has particular expertise in effective communications. When the stakes are high, you want someone on your senior leadership team who is really well-trained in communication to ensure that your message is being received in the way that you intend, whether it be an internal audience in the event of layoffs at your company or an external audience such as community opposition to a solar project.
Sarah Matsui: Are there communications best practices that you live by, that you think would be useful for either founders or fellow solar comms professionals?
Jamie Nolan: First is the importance of establishing a storytelling culture within solar companies. I encourage my clients to mine and share their stories—talk about what got you into this industry, what drives you, how you’ve been able to grow your career in this field. Whether it’s your personal story as a professional, your company’s story, or your customer’s story, storytelling is critical to helping your company achieve its goals.
Second, listening is critical. You need to ask good questions of the audiences that affect your business objectives so that you can communicate in a way that is going to meet them where they are, give them the information that they need, and ultimately lead to the behavior change that you’re looking for. For example, if you want to convince someone to go solar, you need to first understand what the person’s knowledge base is about solar. It’s a two-step process: First, you have to convince someone that they should go solar. Then, you have to convince them that they should go solar with you.
My third tip is simple: Strong writing. It is so foundational to what I do for a living and what all marketers and communicators do. It is also an important skill for anyone’s career. If you don’t consider yourself to be a strong writer, there are so many great free or low-cost writing classes. You won’t regret it.
Sarah Matsui: In your experience, who takes the lead on helping to build and establish a storytelling culture?
Jamie Nolan: I love when a CEO gets on LinkedIn and talks about something their company has done or lifts up their partners. Often solar company employees and executives are also important ambassadors for their companies. It’s not just about sharing stories from the corporate brand perspective, from the corporate brand website, or social media profiles. Absolutely anyone in a company can and should contribute to this.
A key listening opportunity for professional communicators is the weekly staff meeting. When I was at SunShot and managed a team, I would assign my team members to attend meetings to mine for stories. People who were working as developers or project managers might not necessarily think that something that they’re doing is significant that should be shared outside of the organization, but that’s our job as communicators to mine for those stories. Listening in on those meetings, even if half of what’s being discussed goes over your head or isn’t important to share with your audiences, can provide the ideas for your next tweet, blog post, or even a pitch for an exclusive to pv magazine USA. Listening is foundational, and sometimes you have to dig for what’s compelling, but it’s worth it.
Sarah Matsui: What made you choose to start your own cleantech communications company?
Jamie Nolan: I want to encourage other people, especially parents and women, to consider going out on their own and creating their career in solar with their own company. I’m an entrepreneur now and the reason that I decided to do that was because I was having a child. My husband works a really tough schedule, and I wanted more flexibility in my schedule and more control over my hours. I was also ready to work on different projects after working in government for four years. So I took a big leap by going out on my own about a year and a half ago, and it’s honestly been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. My confidence, my courage, and my skills as a communicator have grown at such a rapid pace since I became self-employed, because you have to do challenging things every day.
There is a small but mighty network of us out here who are either ‘solopreneurs’ or own very small PR firms specializing in clean energy. We’re very supportive of one another. If you’ve been thinking about starting a company, reach out for support and you can do it. I’m only in my early 30s, and I did this. So it can be done.
Sarah Matsui: From your work at SEIA, the Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, and now Nolan Strategic, you’ve spent a lot of time working in solar communications. Can you name three behind-the-scenes communications leaders who you think are helping advance the U.S. solar energy industry?
Jamie Nolan: Certainly!
First, I want to highlight Rosalind Jackson. She has been on the forefront of solar and central to some of the most impactful issues in the industry over the last decade. I have tremendous respect for her, and we all owe her for her tireless advocacy on behalf of our industry for many years. Plus, she’s brilliant and kind, which I love—it’s my favorite combination.
Alex Hobson is wrapping up four years at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), where she actually held the role that I had at SEIA a few years ago. She just accepted a new gig as the Vice President of Communications for the American Council on Renewable Energy, and I can’t wait to see what she does there. Alex has been behind most of the big stories about U.S. solar that you’ve seen in mainstream media outlets over the past four years. Her work has broadly raised the profile of solar energy.
Third, I have to highlight one of my former employees and mentees, Jennifer Bristol, who is still at the U.S. Department of Energy’s solar office and is a total rising star in this space. When I first interviewed Jen, we didn’t have a position to put her in, so we made one. She is endlessly enthusiastic about solar, she’s a creative powerhouse, and she’s empathetic and warm. When we brought her on, she worked with the office’s awardee companies, so she has a lot of great industry relationships. I wish I had the budget to hire her right now. She’s going to do big things in her career.