In the 16 years since North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives’ Kristie Aldridge attended NRECA’s New Co-op Communicators Orientation as a communications specialist, one particular moment stands out the most.

On the last day of the conference, then-NRECA CEO Glenn English asked the group to assemble in front of the association’s famed lineman statue.

“He said, ‘You see this statue of a lineman? In the next decade, this could be a statue of a communicator. Your role in this industry is critical, but you have to be engaged. You have to know what’s happening in the industry,’” Aldridge said.

At the time, she was “too young and green” to appreciate the full weight of English’s message, but Aldridge, currently the vice president of strategic communications and marketing at the Raleigh-based statewide association and G&T, gets it now.

“As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve come to understand and appreciate his comments,” said Aldridge, whose role has evolved into a critical leadership position.

She’s now being recognized on the national stage as winner of the 2023 LaBerge Award for Excellence in Strategic Communication, presented May 2 during NRECA’s Connect Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The award recognizes a co-op communicator with demonstrated excellence, influence and impact in co-op communications, both as a practitioner and contributor across the network. It was established in memory of Justin LaBerge, senior leadership communications manager for NRECA from 2015 to 2018.

In addition to working with the state’s co-ops on communications strategies, Aldridge has emerged as a “communications leader during a critical time of transition for our industry, and in doing so has helped make our state’s co-ops national leaders in the pursuit of forward-thinking, innovative and consumer-centric solutions in a rapidly evolving energy landscape,” wrote Nelle Hotchkiss, senior vice president of association services and chief operating officer for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives.

At the statewide association, Aldridge oversees a team of 20 who work in communications and market research and for the monthly magazine. Over the years, collection and interpretation of member data has grown more important because results guide the direction of communications plans, including digital and print advertising, demand response programs and the sweeping Brighter Future initiative the organization shares with its 26 member co-ops.

“My responsibilities look very different today than they did when I walked in the door because of the evolution of communications capabilities coupled with changes in the industry,” Aldridge said.

Things started shifting about eight years ago when Aldridge and senior leaders recognized an opportunity to support member cooperatives’ efforts to engage consumers in a new way—through energy services.

“We saw an opportunity and a need to move engagement past loyalty and trust and help connect members with programs and services from their cooperative that benefit them, as well as the co-op,” Aldridge said.

The award “reflects the collaborative efforts of fellow communicators and co-op leaders across the state,” Aldridge said. “I feel fortunate to work with a leadership team, board of directors and peer group in North Carolina that value communications as part of an overall business strategy.”