HOUSTON—Electric cooperatives have great opportunities to strengthen their relationships with members even as the options for delivering electricity change and consumers expect more and better services.

Consumers have choices now, and new market entrants are crowding the landscape, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson told attendees at the CONNECT ’19. “The hope is that the consumer recognizes that there is this trusted partner: their electric co-op.”

Matheson was among the panelists discussing the changing operational and policy environment that co-ops face and the increased role that communications plays in meeting consumer expectations.

“Communications is a skill set that we have to have,” said Curtis Wynn, president of NRECA and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Ahoskie, North Carolina.

Wynn said having a well-executed strategic communications plan is now just as vital to a co-op’s success as good engineering and accounting practices.

“You need someone who understands what’s happening with the members,” he said.

The panelists noted that more co-ops are elevating the role of the communicator to a senior staff position charged with promoting and maintaining dialogue with members on all issues impacting their communities.

“If you’re not involved and not aware of what is going on at the co-op, you can’t communicate effectively with your members,” said Jennifer Meason, CEO and general manager of Cotton Electric Cooperative in Walters, Oklahoma.

Citing increased activism and scrutiny from advocacy groups, panelists stressed the importance communications plays in sharing information and developing strong relationships with members and shaping effective governance strategies and crisis communication plans.

“I would encourage [communicators] who feel that they don’t have a seat at the table to schedule some time to speak with their manager,” said Meason, urging them to get a full understanding of their co-op’s priorities. “You can help your co-op grow and communicate more effectively with your members.”

Matheson added that messaging for electric co-ops should be centered on providing consumer-members with affordable and reliable power, particularly in discussions of issues like climate change and renewable energy.

“We’re owned by the members we serve, and the costs [of power] go directly to them,” said Matheson. “People who operate utilities have the credibility to tell [members] that if we do this, it threatens reliability. People will listen to that as well.”

The panelists also touched on the role co-ops can play in providing broadband service to their members. Considering factors like system benefits, member demand and costs are key.

“It’s a major investment,” said Wynn, who has tied development of a fiber network to Roanoke EC’s demand response and system automation upgrades. “We are deploying broadband, but it’s tightly interwoven with our utility operations.”