PALM DESERT, Calif.—Tony Anderson had a problem on his hands.
Environmentalists opposed his G&T's plans to build a clean coal-based plant, and heading into his annual meeting, they had two board candidates and a resolution for a renewables mandate that couldn't possibly be met.
"We were getting hammered on a consistent basis, and it was getting personal," said Anderson, general manager of Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Grawn, Michigan.
"At the annual meeting, I knew I had to take the conversation back."
He spoke at that 2010 meeting wearing a shirt with targets on it.
"The shirt was the start of a conversation that talked about affordability targets and reliability targets that we had hit, how we had been targeted in the last year by environmental groups, and targets we wanted to hit in the future," Anderson recalled.
The shirt also had "10x50" on the front. Explaining that meant getting personal with his members.
"That's the size of the house I grew up in in rural South Dakota. So how could I not be in favor of the low-income member? I'm a kid from a trailer park. Affordability is key for me," said Anderson.
"That night I got my membership back."
Anderson shared the story during a CEO Close-Up session on "Enhancing Your Cooperative's Reputation." As Scott Peterson, NRECA senior vice president of communications, told co-op leaders, they're likely starting from an excellent position.
"You're probably the most trusted agents in your communities in terms of your members and your community leaders," said Peterson.
"Trust in the news media has plummeted. Trust in political leaders has plummeted. So we are, as cooperatives, really in a great position from a trust perspective with our members to win those critical moments when it comes to reputation."
Susan Flythe knows that firsthand, having seen five significant hurricanes in the seven years she's been general manager of Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative in Buxton, North Carolina.
"But the outage that occurred this past summer was 10 times worse than any hurricane I've ever been through," said Flythe. That was when a construction crew rebuilding a bridge severed underground transmission cables at the height of tourist season.
Vacationers already on Cape Hatteras, and those with plans to visit, wanted to know what was happening. The national news media arrived. With just 24 employees, CHEC needed what Flythe called "mutual aid," but not the kind with linemen.
"We reached out to our statewide office to ask for additional communications staff and support, because we realized early on there was no way our small staff was going to be able to handle the volume of media requests or deal with the social media impact of this crisis."
The statewide offered guidance, as well as a communicator who stayed for several days.
"I would venture to say that the communication side of this event was so important that we were able to build on that positive reputation and continue to develop that goodwill with our members and other stakeholders," said Flythe.
Read more about how two co-ops handled the spotlight during this emergency.
Enhancing your co-op's reputation among younger members is more important than ever, and Patrick O'Loughlin, CEO of Ohio's Electric Cooperatives, said that could require a new approach.
"We rely largely on our magazine as a communications tool, and that hits a certain demographic very well," said O'Loughlin. But it misses many young people, which is why he upgraded OEC's social media presence.
"We've had a much more concerted effort to put messages out on Twitter," said O'Loughlin, winner of the 2018 J.C. Brown CEO Communication Leadership Award. It reaches younger audiences—and has a bonus.
"Originally, a lot of our Twitter followers were Ohio legislators. So that became an important government relations channel," said O'Loughlin.
And while Facebook isn't as important for the statewide, O'Loughlin knows it can be for distribution co-ops. So OEC hired a firm to help its members with Facebook.
"That's been great to have professional help and full-time management of that in a relatively inexpensive way," said O'Loughlin. "You've got to hit eyeballs where they are."