Monopoly power firm markets itself to public using public cash

Part of SONI's expensive TV advert which, unusually, was just about promoting SONI ' not about selling a product
Part of SONI's expensive TV advert which, unusually, was just about promoting SONI ' not about selling a product

The publicly funded monopoly company which runs Northern Ireland’s electricity grid has refused to say how much it is spending on marketing – even though it has no product to sell.

Industry sources have told the News Letter that the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) has in recent years massively increased its marketing expenditure.

But despite the large budget for communicating with the public, the company has been less than eager to communicate how much it is spending.

The highly unusual situation means that electricity consumers in Northern Ireland – whose bills are already among the highest in Europe – are paying for SONI to advertise itself to them, even though SONI has no product to sell and no one has any choice over whether to use the company.

Many SONI staff – who were to strike today until the company made an 11th hour pay offer – are aggrieved at the scale of the expenditure because the company has refused them pay rises for years.

In recent years SONI – which is now ultimately owned by the Irish government – has used public money to sponsor everything from multiple agricultural shows to a pipe band and the GAA.

It also sponsors the Ulster Rugby Premiership, Armagh Rugby Club, and the Ulster Rugby Real Rugby Heroes awards.

SONI has also sponsored events for the NI Chamber of Commerce, CBI and Institute of Directors – bodies which have all spoken out in favour of SONI’s plans for a huge north-south pylon interconnector, something it says will ensure the lights do not go out in Northern Ireland and should also cut electricity costs.

In recent years SONI has also hired former BBC journalist Natasha Sayee as its ‘senior lead public affairs specialist’ as part of the PR effort.

The company has even paid for a lengthy television advert, which begins with the words “we are the power” and which was last year shown at half-time during a Six Nations match, one of the most expensive slots on local television.

When asked by the News Letter how much it had spent on marketing and sponsorship over the last year and why as a monopoly it was doing so, SONI did not answer the first question.

In a statement, SONI said that its spending was approved by Northern Ireland’s Utility Regulator, Jenny Pyper, which it said “ensures that the services we provide are value for money for electricity consumers”.

The company said it was “committed to ensuring the efficiency of the grid and system and always acting in the interest of electricity customers”.

It added: “A key finding from an independent review of SONI’s operations and engagement with the wider community has been the need for effective communication on the necessity of grid infrastructure to ensure a safe and sustainable electricity supply. As part of our strategy to address this, we make smart investments in information communications and outreach.”

When asked again how much it had spent on marketing and whether money which the regulator had approved for staff salaries was being used to fund the publicity, the company said that it would “won’t be making any further comment”.

When asked how much SONI had spent on marketing, the Utility Regulator said that it had not approved “a specific spend for ‘promotional activity’”.

The regulator said that “it is not unreasonable to assume that there should be less need for significant promotional activities in circumstances where a company is a monopoly service provider like SONI”.

However, it said that regulated utilities “may, on occasion, need to undertake consumer engagement and public affairs related work to successfully deliver significant utility projects”.

Last week the News Letter revealed that after the takeover of SONI by Eirgrid, the Northern Ireland electricity grid was altered so that it can be operated from the Dublin control room of the Irish government-owned company.

One industry source said that the move made practical sense and was an outworking of the single electricity market on the island of Ireland.

But the history of electricity in Northern Ireland – where electricity was in 1974 used as a weapon by loyalists to bring down power-sharing – makes the development politically sensitive.