It was 2001 and Pioneer REC’s Nanci McMaken had just won the Edgar F. Chesnutt Award for a communications strategy on electric deregulation. The reaction of senior management surprised her.

“They said, ‘So now what are you going to do? Are you leaving?’” McMaken recalled. “I think they were concerned that I’d won this big award and working in the co-op world wasn’t going to be enough and that I’d go somewhere else.”

McMaken had no intention of leaving the Piqua, Ohio, electric cooperative, and she’s still there today as its vice president and chief communications officer. For nearly four decades, she has carried the banner for raising the profile of co-op communicators and has advocated that a strong and skilled communications presence can “affect more change and influence more decisions.”

For her efforts, McMaken has received another big honor: the 2020 LaBerge Award for Excellence in Strategic Communications. Safety concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic postponed CONNECT ’20, where she would have received the award publicly.

The LaBerge award was established in 2018 in memory of Justin Erick LaBerge, who was NRECA's senior leadership communications manager. It recognizes a co-op communicator with demonstrated excellence, influence and impact on co-op communications, both as a practitioner and contributor.

LaBerge award judges praised McMaken as “clearly a forward-thinking leader in the communications role at her cooperative and among her peers” and for having a “seat at the table at her cooperative, influencing decisions made with a rational approach using her expertise and member research to make recommendations.”

Nominated by CEO Ron Salyer for the award, McMaken said she believes an effective communicator needs to cultivate a broad knowledge of all co-op operations, not just those directly related to her field. Her team of 12 represents a wide array of disciplines, which she said makes her team strong.

“When I started, we had professional engineers and financial leaders in key roles, all of them with quality teams,” said McMaken, who began at Pioneer as a part-timer in the early 1980s. “And I wanted to make sure our team was always as strong as the other professions.”

Todd Garrett spent much of his career as an electrical engineer before joining McMaken’s staff as manager of community and government relations. He credits her vast knowledge and collaborative spirit, especially in the legislative arena, for shortening his learning curve.

“She’s been a great mentor and her professionalism and how she presents herself has helped me become a more effective communicator,” he said.