Los Angeles Times November 8, 1973
Edison Speakers Taught to Defend Company Views
Faced with the energy crisis and challenges from environmentalists— a major utility company has increased its verbal voltage in a counterattack.
In a program believed to be unique in the United States, the – Southern California Edison Co. is training speakers at. its Rosemead regional headquarters for verbal combat, with environmentalists.
“A few years ago said Ronald C. Gossling, head of the company’s speakers’ bureau. “We found it easy to send speakers to college campuses, service and women’s clubs but then a change took place when the environmental ethic took hold.
“Students, environmentalists and others wanted to hear our side and we just. weren’t used to it.”
But the great ernbarrassment that triggered the idea of verbal combat came a little over two years ago, Gossling said. A student organization on a California- campus had invited Edison to send a representative to a panel discussion with Edward Koupal, president of the People’s Lobby.
“We knew Koupal was very effective,” said Gossling, “so we sent out the best man we had. He was highly qualified and gave beautiful technical answers to non technical questions. Among a group of liberal arts students it just didn’t work. Koupal clobbered him.”
In that instant, Gossling recalls, “the Edison Co. was embarrassed and the real issues never saw the light of day.”
As head of the speakers’ bureau, Gossling said he. went home from the panel discussion discouraged. But out of the experience, he said, he got the idea of developing a different kind of company speaker who could meet environmentalists on their own ground.
When he broached the idea to management, Gossling said, executives were skeptical but decided to take a chance on a pilot program provided the costs were kept down.
Gossling said the – program was started with 15 volunteers from the company instead of recruiting from outside which would have meant higher costs.
“The first speakers were trained at lunch time and. at night or during periods when they could be excused by their bosses when work was slack,” Gossling said.
The only outside help was from paid professional speech coaches who were brought in several times a year.
Results of the program have been beyond expectations, Gossling said. Company speakers have gone from campus to campus, around the service clubs, appeared at seminars and on television and radio talk shows “and they have proved more than a match for their opposition.”
The program is unique in that most companies traditionally have taken a “no comment” approach when contacted on controversial issues.
“Alternatively,” says Gossling, “they will greet inquiries with silence or speakers who are totally unprepared for the verbal barrages they can be subjected to today.
“It used to be that we would spend money only in speaking to our allies,” Gossling said, “but this program is meant to prepare our speakers for dialogue with people opposed to us. We want the energy prob1e~ms and the pollution issues clearly understood.”
Seminars within the company are. simulations. of real encounters. Trainee speakers alternate from being proponents of an issue to devil’s advocates.
“We throw them the toughest questions we can think of,” Gossling said.
The original 15-member team is engaged in training other speakers with the company’s blessing, Gossling said.
Gossling, who said he received a fantastic response when he gave a talk on his company’s program at a national convention, as a result is joining a New York consulting firm which will offer his services to other major utility companies interested in setting up similar programs.
“The reason such programs are necessary today,” Gossling asserts, “is that the public has become a part of the decision-making process in a way that it never had before.”
The success of propositions such as the Coastal Initiative (Proposition 20) to preserve the coastline in California Gossling cited as evidence of the sweeping changes that companies, particularly in the utility field, are being confronted with.