Laura Hengstenberg understands that electric cooperative leaders want to see good news in the media. But she insists good actions must come first.

“There’s often a difference between how a co-op is perceived versus the way it wants to be perceived,” said Hengstenberg, manager of external and internal relations at Crawford Electric Cooperative in Bourbon, Missouri. “That traces back directly to the effectiveness of your communications program.”

With her accomplishments in crafting initiatives at Crawford Electric and her dedication to advancing the cause of co-op communications, Hengstenberg received the 2024 LaBerge Award for Excellence in Strategic Communication on May 7 at the Connect Conference in Baltimore.

The award recognizes a communicator with demonstrated excellence, influence and impact in co-op communications as a practitioner and contributor. It was established in memory of Justin LaBerge, senior leadership communications manager for NRECA from 2015 to 2018.

Scott Gates, outgoing president of the Council of Rural Electric Communicators and editor of Carolina Country magazine, presented the award, which closed a circle because Hengstenberg encouraged him to join CREC seven years ago.

“Laura has been a steady yet passionate advocate for electric co-ops and co-op members throughout her career and has inspired countless peers to approach their communications work with the same level of commitment and creativity,” Gates said. “Her contributions are far-reaching and will no doubt have a lasting impact on the co-op network.”

Tony Mallory, CEO and general manager of Crawford Electric, which serves more than 21,000 meters in the east-central part of the state, can testify to one small example of the impression Hengstenberg has on the co-op family.

Recently, he shared his monthly column, which Hengstenberg writes, with other Missouri CEOs. “I got a call from a CEO from another co-op who said he was thinking about the same topic and asked if he could ‘steal’ what Laura wrote. That’s high praise, indeed.”

Writing skills are natural for Hengstenberg, a journalism major at the University of Missouri who worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Illinois and Virginia before starting at Crawford Electric editing a monthly newsletter.

“Laura came to the electric cooperative community armed with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri,” said Jim McCarty, manager of special projects at the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives in Springfield. “She was determined to put it to work telling the co-op story the only way she knew how: truthfully, accurately, clearly, fairly and with the best interest of the members always in mind.”

Over time, her reach has expanded into governance and human resources, all with a journalist’s insight.

“It’s important to bring perspective to policymaking and decision-making in the board room,” she said. “We want to consider our audience and ask whether we would be proud if an action we took hit the news. And if not, then we need to rethink the action.”

In practice, that has meant teaching everyone at the cooperative that they have some responsibility in communicating to members, even in nontraditional areas such as human resources, another role she has undertaken.

“Internal communications set the stage for external communications,” she said. “Employees are our first best audience, so doing what we can to convey our mission and make their lives better enables them to do the best job for the membership.”

Not every communication involves the written or spoken word. When Crawford Electric moved into a new building in 2013, members found the 20-foot-high ceiling in the main lobby cold and uninviting, Mallory said. Hengstenberg led a project that placed three custom vinyl murals on three upper walls, earning one of many Spotlight on Excellence Awards in the process.

She also worked with a designer to create a set of canvas-printed cooperative principles. They were a big hit, and the Missouri statewide used her design files to create hundreds of sets for co-ops with proceeds going back to Crawford Electric’s charitable trust.

Outside of Crawford Electric, Hengstenberg has been a presenter and a co-chair for the New Co-op Communicators Orientation, laying the groundwork for people entering the system.

Communicators across the country associate her with two words—always on. She was a principal author of the Always On communication plan developed through CREC to define communicator responsibilities and urge CEOs to include communications as a top-level item.

“In the years since AO was launched, I know that CEOs are much more attuned to the value of proactive, strategic communications,” Mallory said. “This is totally aligned with Laura’s demonstrated commitment to the success of all electric cooperatives, not just Crawford Electric.”

McCarty commended Hengstenberg for her ability to adhere to the highest standards of messaging in good times and in bad.

“Her insistence on always using correct grammar made others, myself included, better communicators because if she was willing to set the bar so high, why shouldn’t we? Her selection for this prestigious award is fitting and one that would no doubt make Justin proud,” he said.

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.