Randy Smith, general manager of Laurel, Mississippi-based Dixie Electric Power Association, has won the annual J.C. Brown CEO Communication Leadership Award.

The award recognizes an electric cooperative CEO or general manager who is committed to advancing communication at the co-op and in the overall industry. It is named in honor of the late editor and publisher of NRECA’s RE Magazine, J.C. Brown, who led the publication from 1973 to 1993.

Smith elevated communications from an event-planning function into a vital part of Dixie Electric’s planning and management processes. When he took over as general manager in 2011, six years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the co-op’s electrical system, Dixie Electric was still smarting from negative publicity stemming from its lack of communication about restoration efforts.

That experience “profoundly affected” Smith, an engineer at the time who helped oversee restoration efforts, said Lydia Walters, the co-op’s communications and human resources manager.

“It was a big wake-up call for the management and the board that they needed a strategic communications approach,” she said.

With board approval, Smith put communications at the forefront of all co-op operations. Among other things, he instituted a crisis communications plan; formed relationships with media outlets; enhanced traditional and social media; and increased outreach to members, especially young adults.

Having been in place for several years, the communications plan was tested in April 2020 when four tornadoes, including an EF-4 twister, swept across Dixie Electric’s service area over an 11-day period. Despite a lengthy restoration process, the co-op’s plan helped it attract positive reviews for how it handled the crisis.

Smith said he’s learned the hard way about the importance of strategic communications.

“You can have the best plans and the best projects, but if those aren't communicated the right way, whether that's internally or externally, then you can fall short in a lot of cases.”

Smith has spent most of his career at Dixie Electric, first as a distribution engineer in 1986 and then as engineering manager in 2007. This past fall, he also became president of DE Fastlink LLC, a wholly owned broadband subsidiary.

One of the three judges who helped select this year’s recipient praised him as someone who “truly understands the power of solid communications and what it can achieve. Smith knows firsthand what it takes to keep a cooperative current, to remain responsive to members and to inspire and motivate employees: strong communications.”

The three-judge panel is made up of communications and management experts from academia and business, including co-ops. The J.C. Brown award, first presented in 2004, was established by the Council of Rural Electric Communicators and the Certified Cooperative Communicator Program Board. The award is typically given during the CEO Close-Up conference in January, but that event has been postponed until August due to the pandemic.