When Grand Valley Power launched its advanced metering infrastructure last year, it was the co-op’s biggest technology upgrade since it turned on the lights in western Colorado 84 years ago. And the electric cooperative wanted to hit just the right note when breaking the news to members beforehand.

“It really was important to display our voice and specific messages so that our members knew why we were making this decision and the great benefits to them,” said Christmas Wharton, communications manager at the Grand Junction, Colorado, co-op.

Grand Valley Power launched a multimedia campaign to promote the upgrade and address public misperceptions that two-way communication meters cause fires, compromise privacy or harm health by emitting high radio frequencies.

The co-op armed board directors and employees with talking points on meter security that addressed members’ concerns head-on with information that the meters meet safety and health requirements and standards issued by industry groups and the federal government.

For its efforts, Grand Valley Power received the Edgar F. Chesnutt Award for Best Total Communication Program. Safety concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic postponed CONNECT ’20, where Wharton would have received the award publicly.

The Chesnutt award is named for Edgar F. Chesnutt, who was manager of corporate communications at Arkansas Electric Cooperative for more than a quarter-century. It is the highest honor bestowed through the Spotlight on Excellence Awards program.

Wharton based the campaign on NRECA’s Communicators Toolkit for a Smart Meter Rollout, interviews with co-ops on their meter deployment experiences, data from federal agencies on health risks and third-party research from the meter manufacturer.

The co-op tested its message on a group of 700 members over a period of several weeks in fall 2018, with door-knob hangers, multiple mailers and an article in “Colorado Country Life” magazine. Members were directed to the website for more information, and the co-op provided regular updates on social media and other outlets.

In December 2019, the co-op installed the last of its 17,727 smart meters and less than 1% of members opted out.

Chesnutt judges praised the co-op’s submission from start to finish, citing the exhaustive research, “consistency of message and involvement of both internal and external audiences … in the training and communication. With a less than 1% opt-out, the results speak to the planning, implementation and execution of this campaign.”

The award is Grand Valley Power’s first from NRECA. It’s extra special for Wharton as a communicator from a small distribution co-op.

“Teamwork and collaboration were crucial to our success on this communications effort, with Christmas leading the way,” said Tom Walch, the co-op’s CEO. “Our resources may be limited, but it didn’t keep us from planning and working together. I’ll take great people over great resources any day. And that’s what we have here–great people.”