How one Philly company used architecture as a communications tool

Dec 4, 2017

When most companies think of communications, they think of a narrow set of tasks, like writing website copy, posting to social media, creating presentations, etc.

Typically, the communications team doesn’t weigh in on major business decisions – they just write the press releases announcing those decisions.

But that’s not how the Philadelphia Electric Company thought about communications at the turn of the 20th century.

At the time, electricity was still an emerging technology, and both politicians and the public were wary of how large corporations controlled these important utilities. (There are many parallels, actually, to another Philly tech company – Comcast – and the current debate about net neutrality.)

Philadelphia Electric needed to convey that it was a trustworthy civic steward. One key way it did that was through the design of its power plants.

“Its architecture sought to present the corporation as an efficient and responsible cornerstone of society,” writes historian David E. Nye in the introduction to the 2016 book “Palazzos of Power” by University of Pennsylvania history professor Aaron V. Wunsch and Muhlenberg College art professor Joseph E.B. Elliott.

Cover of Palazzos of Power. All photos by Joseph E.B. Elliott.

The structures featured Greek columns, intricate cornices and large glass windows. The prestigious exteriors of these plants projected an air of dignity, solidity and modernity, serving to support the story they wanted to tell about electricity being a progressive technology.

“These buildings had to pitch themselves to people,” Wunsch told Curbed Philadelphia. “The sublime classicism of these structures, all owned by a powerful private company, are meant to convince others that they’re in some sense public buildings.”

Long story short: Philadelphia Electric Company shows that even something like architectural design can serve as a public relations tool, making the case for breaking down the traditional communications silo, and building a greater respect for including communications on major strategic decisions.


This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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