After an extreme weather event, electric cooperative members can rely on timely, relevant information on power restoration. But what if the crisis isn’t weather-related?

It turns out members are also giving their co-ops high marks on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent NRECA and Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives survey.

“The results of this COVID-19 response survey of consumer-members demonstrate that there is overall satisfaction and agreement among members that their co-op is a name they can trust and looks out for the welfare of their communities,” said Scott Peterson, NRECA’s senior vice president for communications. “Furthermore, the results of the survey are particularly instructive for planning future communications.”

Results of the National Co-op Member COVID-19 Response Study, a collaboration of NRECA and Touchstone Energy, were released during a recent webinar. NRECA Market Research surveyed more than 7,000 co-op consumer-members from 20 co-ops across 10 regions in June and July—after areas began to lift lockdown restrictions.

The survey identified 12 possible actions taken among co-ops, such as closing lobbies to the public or suspending service disconnections. Each co-op took at least four of the actions; on average, co-ops took seven.

While about six in 10 members said they knew of at least one of these actions , other efforts went unnoticed, despite high overall approval ratings for co-ops.

“As we got into specific actions, we saw that the awareness of what the co-op had done was a lot lower than I personally had expected to see,” said Mike Sassman, NRECA’s manager of market research, during the webinar.

Key takeaways from the survey include:

1. Co-op business continuity practices may have led to a member perception of “business as usual.”

Because co-ops have continued to deliver core services since the March lockdown, members assumed that good service would continue during the pandemic. “Co-ops did what members expected of them,” the report said.

2. Members agree that co-ops are ready and prepared to deal with a community crisis.

Co-ops are operating from a position of strength in their communities. Members said they were “very” or “mostly” satisfied with their co-op.

“Members understand that co-ops are ready to deal with a crisis, which in ‘normal’ life is a storm with outages, and that confidence has carried over into how co-ops are dealing with the pandemic and just being there the next time the community needs them,” said Sassman.

Among those who rated their co-op highly were older members, those with lower electric bills and those who identified as living in urban or suburban areas, a “surprise,” said Sassman, because “we’re so used to seeing rural members as having that connection to the co-op.”

3. Co-ops are doing a lot of pandemic-related outreach, but not everyone’s noticing.

Because the pandemic hasn’t disrupted co-ops’ delivery of core services and members already view co-ops favorably, many COVID-19 responses are going unnoticed, the report found.

Members said they couldn’t recall specific steps taken by co-ops to help their communities—which could hinder co-op efforts for deeper member engagement.

Strong digital communications with members is necessary “to get those messages out and is definitely a key driver for long-term satisfaction,” said Jason McGrade, Touchstone Energy senior program manager of strategic operations. “And during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, the value of member relations really does come into sharp focus.”

4. Constant communication through all possible channels is key.

Members got pandemic-related information from co-ops mostly via email, but other popular communications methods included print publications, and bill messages and inserts, the survey found.

Researchers recommended that co-ops use a variety of methods to reach members.

“You can't assume that because you sent one email or posted one message or had one mention in a magazine that your members received that information,” said Anne Prince, NRECA’s member communications manager. “You have to take that basic message and adapt it for use over different communication channels for it to sink in.”