Electric cooperative communications teams are lean, proactive and changing rapidly in the face of new communication channels and evolving member needs.

These are among the findings of an NRECA survey of distribution co-op, G&T and statewide communicators. The survey data will serve as a benchmark on the characteristics, challenges and engagement of co-op communications teams.

“Strategic communications are critical to navigating the challenges facing today's electric cooperatives," said Scott Peterson, NRECA's senior vice president for communications. “To measure success and the essential role effective communication plays, we must start by defining where we are today."

NRECA released results of the survey during a July 9 webinar. Distribution co-op communicators accounted for 237 of the 265 responses, along with 15 respondents from statewide associations and 13 respondents from G&Ts. The survey was conducted in February by NRECA Market Research.

“We designed the survey to help the broader cooperative network and NRECA gain a better understanding of the communications work happening across the country," said Holly Wetzel, NRECA's senior director of marketing and member communications.

“For individual co-ops, the survey provides a window into what your peers across the co-op network are doing, which can help you benchmark your own operations and activities against the rest of the industry."

The results also will help shape future NRECA training opportunities for co-op communicators, including monthly town halls starting in September, virtual working groups and practical skills webinars.

“This data is vital as we work to deliver value to co-op communicators through resources and education that they told us they need," said Wetzel.

Key takeaways from the survey include:

1. Most distribution co-ops have a small communications team.

Almost all respondents said they have at least one full-time employee handling communications and marketing, and 83% of distribution co-ops have two or fewer full-time employees. Fifteen percent of co-ops with fewer than 20,000 consumer-members lack a full-time communicator on staff.

2. Co-op communicators accomplish a lot with limited resources.

Co-op communicators carry out multiple responsibilities, including writing, social media, photography, media relations, website development, community relations, event planning and more. “It's a list that shows great depth and breadth of tasks communicators are responsible for," said Michael Sassman, NRECA's market research manager. “Communicators don't wear just a single hat but have a lot of different roles and responsibilities."

3. Most communicators have a seat at the leadership table.

When asked whether communicators are included in co-op decision-making, 65% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed. “Communications has come a long way," said Sassman. “If we posed this question 10 years ago, I doubt the majority would have agreed with this statement. Many co-ops have acknowledged that communications needs to be part of that senior leadership function and is important to the healthy operation of that organization."

4. Most co-ops have a crisis communication plan.

If co-ops have a communications plan in place, it's more likely to focus on crisis communications than strategic communications. Nearly three-quarters of distribution co-ops and G&Ts have a crisis communications plan, while fewer than half have a plan focusing on strategic communications.

5. Co-ops use a mix of digital and traditional media to reach members, employees.

Co-ops of all sizes use a variety of communications channels to engage their members and employees and update them on programs, products and services. Nearly all respondents identify their website as a primary communications channel, followed by newsletters (79%), statewide magazines (76%) and advertising (72%).

Ninety-three percent of respondents have a Facebook account, with statewides and G&Ts more likely to use a broader array of social media channels.

6. Co-ops are strong on social media, member events and youth outreach.

Areas that distribution co-ops consider strengths are social media, community engagement, the co-op's website, member events and youth outreach. Statewides and G&Ts identified creative services, internal communications, youth outreach, member events and social media as their top five.

7. Co-ops want to improve young adult member engagement and strategic planning.

Co-ops identified their top three areas for improvement. For distribution co-ops, that includes young adult member engagement, internal communications and strategic planning. Among statewides and G&Ts, strategic planning, young adult member engagement and community engagement top the list.

Other areas covered in the survey include co-op communicators' level of involvement in community events, media engagement, government affairs and consumer-member surveys.