Storm-Hardened Communications: “Always On” outreach strategies help co-ops build member trust and get through tough times

RE Magazine | September 2014 Cover Story

From the beginning, electric co-ops have been about two essential things: providing power and connecting with the communities and members they serve. But rapid changes in operational and communications technologies over the past decade are forcing co-ops to radically change the way they accomplish both of these key missions.

On the operations side, things like new government regulations, the smart grid, cyber-security concerns, energy efficiency, declining demand, renewables, and distributed generation are creating complexities in the industry that have never been seen before.

On the communications side, co-ops must now be prepared to explain these complexities to members who are increasingly aware, interested, and vocal about operations issues and who now have access to an unprecedented amount of information (of varying quality) and round-the-clock connectivity via mobile and Internet platforms.

“More information for members doesn’t necessarily mean better information,” says Charles McAlpin, manager of communication & member services at Calais-based Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative. “In this highly connected environment, the bad information can spread just as quickly as the good. Co-ops now have to anticipate problems and be ready to respond quickly, accurately, and in the right voice to comments and questions that can come from dozens of different sources on a wide variety of complex subjects at any time, day or night.”

Council of Rural Electric Communicators

Members of the Council of Rural Electric Communicators come from distribution co-ops, G&Ts, statewides, NRECA, and NRECA sister cooperatives.

The Council of Rural Electric Communicators (CREC), a group of forward-thinking co-op communications professionals, recognized this dilemma and worked to devise a road map for co-ops that would help them navigate this unfamiliar territory. The result, dubbed the “Always On” initiative, advises co-ops to approach community and member relations in the same way they’ve always approached system hardening: prepare for the worst; monitor threats; and have a solid, roles-based plan for when disaster strikes.

“For years, co-ops have worked to increase system reliability and enhance power quality to meet their members’ demand for always-on electricity,” the report states. “Now, co-ops must invest in the infrastructure required to fulfill the new consumer mandate: the demand for always-on communication.”

Download the Always On Report
Employees and directors/trustees of NRECA member cooperatives can read the full Always On report (PDF) on Cooperative.com, a private industry website.

Embracing the Always On Concept

Following is a series of vignettes about co-ops who have embraced the Always On concept and whose “communications readiness” has helped staff anticipate problems, confront challenges, and keep member sentiment on their side.

Baldwin EMC’s strategy: Communicate and train

By Cathy Cash

Communicators at Baldwin Electric Membership Corporation needed only 24 hours to see a real-life payoff for their efforts to create an Always On communication plan.

The day after staff had wrapped up a two-day workshop on crisis communications, E.A. “Bucky” Jakins Jr.―CEO of the Summerdale, Ala., co-op―faced a dreadful situation: A lineman had been critically injured. He called Karen Moore, Baldwin EMC’s vice president for energy services & public relations, but she was off site.

Baldwin EMC Mock Drill

Karen Moore, Baldwin EMC vice president for energy services & public relations (fourth from left), says her team’s communication drills sometimes seem “so real, you [get] emotionally caught up.”

“It’s okay,” Jakins told Moore, “I know what to do.”

Jakins went down the hall to the communications department and pulled out a template that outlined the appropriate information for the co-op to convey about the situation when the media called.

As it turned out, news reporters didn’t call that day. But the value of having a plan for communicating such situations continues to resonate in the co-op.

“Thank goodness we had our crisis communications plan,” Jakins says. “We had a plan in place for me to use that had been articulated ahead of time. It gave me great comfort to know it was available to us.”

But why did a co-op that serves parts of two rural counties in southern Alabama decide to beef up its crisis communications posture? The impetus came when Jakins and Moore watched as another co-op struggled to respond to media inquiries about a predicament it was in.

“They weren’t prepared, and it appeared they didn’t have a plan,” Moore says. “The media was eating them alive.”

After sharing the episode with management and the board, Moore found ready support to move forward. Baldwin EMC’s four-person communications staff teamed up with Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., and Coast Electric Power Association in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to share the cost of the two-day workshop. At its conclusion, the co-ops had communication plans that covered dozens of crisis scenarios.

The Always On report of the Council of Rural Electric Communicators advocates for a dynamic, strategic approach to communication.

The Always On report of the Council of Rural Electric Communicators advocates for electric co-ops to take a dynamic, strategic approach to 24/7 communication.

That was 2010. Now, Baldwin EMC has communications templates to respond to 70 possible events, ranging from the death of a co-op employee to a robbery, from a hostage situation to embezzlement. When a reporter calls, Baldwin EMC’s strategy is to talk to the media at least once within the first hour and to provide whatever facts and details are available within the second hour.

To stay fresh, the Baldwin EMC communications team drills itself on crisis scenarios once a quarter and conducts annual mock emergencies with a consultant.

“We spent half a day going through a drill that felt so real, you got emotionally caught up,” Moore says.

Jakins, a 40-year veteran of the electric utility business, remembers when a communications team at a co-op was a rarity. He sees Always On staff, trained to talk to the media, as a necessity.

“The worst thing that could happen to a co-op is not an ice storm or a tornado or a hurricane. A lot of times, the worst thing that comes out of those disasters is problematic communications,” Jakins says. “You can be the best at disaster recovery but not have a plan that communicates well, and you can end up looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Moore says training employees to be Always On demands resources and time, but “it pays for itself with one crisis.”

“As of today, we have prepared ourselves, but thankfully, we have not had to face the media with a crisis,” she says. “That is not to say we haven’t gotten the book out several times and the call has just not come.”

In the meantime, employees are continually encouraged to be the eyes and ears for the co-op. Moore recalls a Baldwin EMC employee who was putting gas in his vehicle when he saw a young woman who was short of cash. He gave her the extra money she needed and went on his way. Later, the co-op received a call from a member who wanted to thank the staffer for helping his daughter that day. The employee had been wearing a shirt with a Baldwin EMC logo.

“Everyone has the responsibility to build the reputation of Baldwin EMC,” Moore says. “All-inclusive and Always On is a great way to look at that.”

Strategic plan helped Crawford ‘soften’ a right-of-way project

By Derrill Holly

Answers, explanations, and a member-benefit focus can make even the best service reliability projects more successful and easier to accomplish. That’s what Crawford Electric Cooperative discovered when it made reclaiming all of its rights-of-way a long-term strategic goal.

“We needed to clear a 30-foot-wide space, from ground to sky, 15 feet on both sides of the poles, system-wide,” says Laura Hengstenberg, manager of administration & communication at Bourbon, Mo.-based Crawford Electric. “You can just imagine the kind of upset and controversy that could have caused.”

Dixie Power in Beryl, Utah, generated 2,000 Action.coop responses by staffing a tent at its popular annual Kite Festival. (See green sidebar on right.)

Dixie Power in Beryl, Utah, generated 2,000 Action.coop responses by staffing a tent at its popular annual Kite Festival. (See green sidebar on right.)

Recognizing that the work would dramatically alter the familiar landscape many members saw from their windows, the co-op developed messaging to explain the need and its benefits. Co-op directors also approved a series of “softeners,” including a tree replacement program and demonstration plantings to reinforce strategic messages.

“We highlighted the professional management of our program and our concern for the environment,” Hengstenberg says. “As we removed trees and dense undergrowth that threatened our lines and poles, low-growing grasses and forbs flourished. That provides food, cover, and travel lanes for deer, turkey, and quail.”

Recognition from the National Arbor Day Foundation as a Tree Line USA utility enhanced the credibility of the co-op’s messages. Operational goals throughout the project included a consistent commitment to member acceptance of the program.

“People will fill a space with whatever they think is going on,” Hengstenberg says. “It’s to the organization’s benefit to make sure that void stays filled with factual information.”

The right-of-way reclamation project took more than a decade to complete, but the strategic messaging on the topic remains central to the co-op’s vegetation management plan today, four years later. Although weather-related outages still occur, accessing the damage takes less time, and crews are able to restore service more quickly and safely.

Consistent, repetitive messaging also helped the co-op turn member acceptance into member advocacy. “Today, members are more likely to call in to request that we trim or remove trees because they truly understand that trees and power lines don’t mix,” Hengstenberg says.

The messaging and engagement strategy Crawford used during the right-of-way project is part of a comprehensive process that includes communications with members, co-op staff, and other stakeholders in tactical planning to accomplish the co-op’s goals.

“I report directly to the CEO and am directly involved in any and all strategic planning with the board,” Hengstenberg says. She has used internal debriefings with management to develop plans to mitigate the impact of incidents that might adversely affect the co-op’s image.

External communications tools have always included bill stuffers, lobby signage, member publications, and, when warranted, notification of local media outlets. In recent years, the co-op’s website and social media channels have provided more options for keeping members informed.

“The public always has an interest in their electric service being ‘Always On,’” Hengstenberg says, adding that members have more opportunities to share opinions about their electric co-ops than ever before.

“People always talked about things at the coffee shop or on the telephone with their neighbors,” Hengstenberg says. “Today, those conversations occur faster and reach much further because of social media.”

Focusing on face-to-face and digital communications

By Amber Sheley

Joan O’Fallon may be a one-woman department, but that didn’t stop her from working with her colleagues to broaden her co-op’s communications posture to include the gamut of new media platforms.

O’Fallon, the communications director at Centuria, Wis.-based Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative, says increasing member satisfaction and demonstrating the value of co-op membership was her guiding light as she worked to construct an Always On strategy that takes advantage of a rapidly changing communications landscape.

“Engaging members in only traditional ways is no longer effective,” she says. “Our focus is now on face-to-face communication and digital communication.”

The keystone of the face-to-face side of the co-op’s plan is its Community Service–Employee Ambassador Program, which lets all workers take up to 16 hours of paid leave to volunteer in the community.

“Having employees representing the co-op well while helping our members is a win-win,” O’Fallon says. “It’s so much more effective than sending out a newsletter.”

Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative treats its Member Appreciation Days as a key part of its communications plan.

Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative treats its Member Appreciation Days as a key part of its communications plan, giving staff and directors a chance to connect with members and share co-op stories. Here, board director Jeff Peterson helps out with lunch-serving duties.

Polk-Burnett Electric employees also conduct seminars for members four to six times a year which focus on timely topics like energy efficiency, electric vehicles, geothermal energy, and solar.

“This is another win-win,” O’Fallon says. “We show members how to conserve energy and save money while also showing that Polk-Burnett Electric cares and wants to help.”

On the digital communications side, the co-op maintains active Facebook and Twitter pages, which O’Fallon posts to several times a week with updates on system work and outages, energy efficiency tips and information, and co-op news. O’Fallon also uses Polk-Burnett Electric’s website, e-mail newsletters, an online outage map, and SmartHub―the co-op’s online bill-pay system―to connect with members.

O’Fallon deployed her digital communications strategy in summer 2011, when a “megastorm” knocked out power to 12,000 of the co-op’s 20,000 members, taking out 215 poles and 45 transformers and leaving some in the dark for more than six days. During the outage, O’Fallon used social media, the website, and e-mail to keep members informed.

“Digital media was very helpful in improving outage restoration satisfaction,” she says. “By providing immediate information, such as the next areas to be worked on and estimated restoration times, members were always in the information loop.”

O’Fallon says committing to a strategy like Always On is the best way for co-ops to stay current with evolving communications tools and to ensure members see the co-op as a trusted resource.

“Communication today is more important than ever before, not only with our members but with all stakeholders,” she says. “We need to learn new tactics to reach out to members. With Always On, co-ops can keep up with the latest trends and adapt to what is going on in the world.”

Facebook post triggers ‘Always On’ response

By Michael W. Kahn

At 9:30 one Friday night, a post appeared on Jackson Energy Cooperative’s Facebook page.

“A member posed the question: ‘If I don’t get the [statewide] magazine, will my electric bill go down?’ And that started a thread of ‘How much does the magazine cost?’ and ‘Although I like the magazine, is it necessary?’” Karen Combs recalls.

By Monday morning, the discussion could have gone in a variety of unpleasant directions. Fortunately, Combs’s Always On communications strategy helped avert a crisis.

As Jackson Energy’s director of public relations, she was able to quickly respond, explaining that the statewide association provided the magazine at minimal cost and that it’s an efficient way for the co-op to keep members informed.

“It was an unexpected question at 9:30 at night,” Combs says, but “everything got resolved.”

That incident is just one example of how the Always On program has proved invaluable at the McKee, Ky.-based co-op.

“The communicator and management have always had a good working relationship,” Combs says, noting that CEO Carol Wright appreciates the importance of communications. “That good working relationship allows the communicator to feel they have the freedom and ability to inform the members,” knowing that management has confidence in them.

Another part of the Always On collaboration is Jackson Energy’s IT department. Thanks to IT, if Combs needs a file from her office computer, she can get it from her iPad or any other computer in the world using a program called Splashtop.

The final piece of the Always On puzzle is the co-op’s operations department staffers. Their help is crucial when it comes to keeping members informed about outages. Not only do they provide updates on restoration, they also take pictures, which Combs shares on Jackson Energy’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“The impact of pictures, particularly during storm damage, is significant in social media,” Combs says.

For one thing, the call volume is lower when people see the information online. And then there’s the great truth behind the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

“A couple of years ago, we had a tornado in which several people were killed,” Combs recalls. Among the damage photos she posted were shots of poles down in a cemetery. That truly resonated with one particular member.

“At the time, the co-op member was in Florida, and one of those pictures happened to show her husband’s headstone, which was not damaged,” Combs says. “She said it was such a comfort for her to see that. The area had been blocked off by emergency personnel for several days because of the extent of the damage, and none of her family members had been able to get to the cemetery.”

Combs estimated that as many as 25 percent of Jackson Energy’s members neither have Internet access nor want it.

“But we do have a growing number of older members who are embracing social media,” she says. “You have to meet the needs of those increasing number of members who are using social media and the Internet.”

BUILDING ‘ALWAYS ON’

CREC members collaborated from afar in creating communications road map

By Steven Johnson

Imagine creating a thorough, forward-looking guidepost for electric co-op communications from scratch, with no budget, no staff, no meetings, and no precedent. The Council of Rural Electric Communicators (CREC) did just that in building its “Always On” communications strategy guidelines.

“It’s highly useful for what we are trying to promote, which is the strategic value of communications and the importance of filling all the relevant roles within a cooperative,” says Laura Hengstenberg, manager of administration & communication at Bourbon, Mo.-based Crawford Electric Cooperative.

The report, available on Cooperative.com, provides markers for communicators, CEOs, and other co-op leaders so their co-ops are equipped to meet the 24/7 demands of communications now and in the future.

At first, council members say, the initiative was not much more than a series of amorphous concepts designed to follow up on the work of a high-level task force of CEOs that studied energy strategies.

“The original assignment was very broad. We were asked to consider the future of communications for co-ops. We had to narrow it to what was doable and what was not,” recalls Charles McAlpin, manager of communication & member services at Calais-based Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative, who headed up the council at the time.

That meant a lot of tracked edits flew back and forth in e-mails between council members in a process that reached out to CEOs and the Rural Electric Management Development Council, among others.

“There were red lines, blue lines, green lines, and everything else by the time the document bounced around a few times,” says Keith Stapleton, chief communications officer at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative in Livingston, Texas.

“But the fun thing about working on it was that as a council, we all have similar interests in seeing things progress,” Stapleton says. “When you get that many people who are on board and passionate about a subject, it’s a lot more enjoyable to work on it, even if you’re not physically in the same room.”

CREC was the ideal body to dive into strategic communications. It consists of representatives from distribution co-ops, generation and transmission co-ops, and statewide associations, as well as NRECA and its national sister cooperatives. It’s responsible for the Spotlight on Excellence awards and the annual New Co-op Communicator Orientation and was the founder, with NRECA, of the Certified Cooperative Communicator program.

McAlpin says the council realized early on that predicting what communications will look like in 10 or 15 years was a fruitless exercise.

“The only thing changing faster than the electric utility industry is the communications field. If we teach about things as they are now, they could be obsolete in five years,” he says. “But if you have an effective communications plan, and you cover the right roles, we think those are going to be relevant, regardless of how technology changes and how society changes.”

The document urges communicators and CEOs to “storm harden” co-op communications, much like co-ops do with their physical infrastructure. Hengstenberg, who was responsible for much of the copy editing, says that means much more than storm preparations.

“It’s not just weather―it’s all kinds of issues related to members that were not on the radar years ago,” she says.

In that way, “Always On” is a living document, open to changes and modifications as circumstances warrant. Stapleton moderated a panel on “Always On” at the 2014 CONNECT conference in San Antonio, Texas, and believes feedback is important.

“I think it’s begun to gain traction among co-op leaders,” he says. “It was created in part because of the way communications has been changing. We know that will continue, and we want to keep up with it.”

ENGAGING THE GRASSROOTS

Co-ops’ Always On efforts extend to issue advocacy

By Victoria A. Rocha

The increasing need to engage and inform consumer-members is spurring many co-ops to enhance their communications efforts. But it’s not just communicators who are “storm hardening” their outreach. As legislative and regulatory clouds have gathered recently, particularly regarding federal power plant-emissions rules, political and grassroots staff at co-ops have taken a few pages from the “Always On” book to help them educate members and motivate them to act.

“It is part of everyone’s job in the co-op to contribute to community engagement and political advocacy,” says Laura Marshall Schepis, NRECA vice president, political affairs. “This can be daunting. We recognize that.”

Much of Co-op Nation has embraced the Action.coop and TellEPA.com campaigns, asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt common-sense emissions rules that balance energy needs and environmental concerns. More than 725,000 supporters have sent comments to EPA as part of the effort.

The work of two co-ops exemplifies the Always On strategy that many co-ops have taken toward this massive grassroots effort. South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation and Dixie Power in Utah have used bill stuffers, social media posts, newsletters, and other means to get their members to join the fight.

“Our board, CEO, and management team grasped how important it was for all of us to spread the word, and they challenged us to do the best we can,” says Joy Bullock, corporate communications coordinator at the Somerset, Ky.-based co-op. “We’re trying to use every method we can to get the word out.”

But the most successful aspect of both co-ops’ campaigns has been face-to-face contact with members and stakeholders. At South Kentucky RECC, field crews distribute Action.coop cards during their rounds. At the co-op’s 2014 annual meeting, staffers worked the crowd, collecting about 1,000 signatures. Lobby sign-ups have been popular too, pushing the total number of signatures to more than 12,000.

“We have one of the highest levels of walk-in traffic volume among Kentucky co-ops, so we set up tables in lobbies when foot traffic is heaviest,” Bullock says.

Dixie Power in Beryl, Utah, kicked off its Action.coop campaign with a staff-operated tent during its kite festival, held each April in St. George. “We went from virtually nothing to 2,000 signatures in one day,” says Corey Jenkins, the co-op’s communications coordinator.

That single-day effort has bloomed into an eight-point marketing strategy that’s attracted 10,000 signatures from a co-op with only about 15,000 members.

Dixie Power’s face-to-face tactics also include courting local political and community leaders and arming them with climate-change facts and figures from Action.coop.

“They then go back to their spheres of influence and ask them to sign Action.coop,” Jenkins says. His advice to other co-ops: “Identify who’s influential in your community and personalize the message for them. If people learn how it will affect their livelihoods, their ears will perk up, and they will sign up.”

Jenkins says affordable electricity is not just a pocketbook issue. It’s a credibility issue, too. And when co-ops mobilize members, it shows they’re looking out for them.

“We have a good reputation around here by keeping rates affordable,” he says. “We’re working in good faith and asking EPA to keep an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach.”