As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend business operations, electric cooperatives are turning to online communities in record numbers for advice on business continuity, crisis communications and other responses.

Co-op employees have been taking advantage of an NRECA benefit to stay in touch with their peers: the professional communities—a secure, social-media-style platform to network, ask questions and exchange best practices and documents with peers.

“We created the professional communities in 2018 to bring together co-op employees and directors to connect, grow and get things done,” said Mike Lynch, NRECA’s digital product manager. “It’s gratifying to see co-op folks using the communities daily to embrace the principle of cooperation among cooperatives.”

Lynch said many co-op communicators are seeking advice on social media messages, such as how to phrase announcements on temporary suspensions of disconnects and visits to members’ homes or changes in bylaws to postpone annual meetings.

“When communicators are facing a crisis like coronavirus, it’s nice to have the professional community to share ideas and serve as sounding boards for one another,” said Mark Owen, communications manager at South Central Power Company in Lancaster, Ohio. “It’s a great way to crowdsource ideas and see great examples of work being done around the country instead of all of us trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Community participants have shared 1,419 discussion posts, many of them pandemic-related, in March. That exceeds the previous monthly record, set in October 2019, by 24%, Lynch said. Communicators, member services and human resources professionals have been the most active among the communities.

“In no cases are there great amounts of worried discussion or what I’d term as panic or even fear—more concern for doing the right thing,” said Lynch.

He noted that early community discussions centered on travel restrictions for co-op staff. Pandemic plans, emergency response procedures and employee leave have also been popular topics, as well as information about sequestering line crews.

Youth Tour directors have used their platform to discuss the impacts of anticipated changes in the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour scheduled for June.

“Our online community has been a wonderful communication tool for our group as we navigate the daily—and sometimes hourly—news and updates during this crazy time,” said Beth Knudson, NRECA’s youth programs and training manager.

Lynch said that as co-ops adapt to new routines, the communities have helped build a sense that “we’re all in this together” across the network.

“With the coronavirus pandemic impacting virtually all aspects of co-op operations, the professional communities all filled with co-op folks are coming together like a family does in a time of need, expressing a ‘can do’ attitude and working together for the benefit of all.”

See NRECA’s coronavirus resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication as well as event schedule changes.