By: Jen Wheeler, CCC
Senior Graphic Designer, NRECA
Navigating political issues at the local level can be challenging for many cooperatives, especially when addressing new, emerging policy issues. Knowing how to speak with your consumer-members and external stakeholders about important policy issues at the local and national level is a vital piece of a well-rounded communications plan. This month, we asked Leann Paradise, NRECA’s senior associate for grassroots advocacy, to share insight on how cooperatives can navigate this unique, ever shifting landscape.
Q: What are two significant political issues/challenges cooperatives are facing today, and how do those issues impact consumer-members on a local level?
A: As we all know, the nation is still grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and every one of our communities has been touched. Parents are still trying to educate their children remotely with inadequate internet connections, highlighting the stark digital divide that exists particularly in the rural areas we serve. As jobs have been lost due to lockdowns, our members have struggled to pay the bills. But the good news is that our co-ops have been on the front lines of trying to solve many of those problems through our relationships with government. We are working to find financial relief through legislation for the co-ops so that they can help struggling members of their communities hold on financially until the crisis passes and advocating for assistance in laying new broadband connections to our communities that need it.
Additionally, there is a push in Washington to address the critical need for infrastructure improvements. While most Americans think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure, the reliability and safety of the nation’s electric grid is also at stake. This is a chance for us as co-ops to shore up our networks and ensure that the lights stay on for our families and communities.
Q: How could a co-op communicator frame a national political issue to make it relevant for their local member-owner audience?
A: To make an issue matter to the average American, you must tie it back to the kitchen table. How will the issue impact your member’s family, their personal finances, their community, their job? Co-ops are uniquely positioned to do just that with many of the national policy issues that concern us, because the service we provide is so central to everyday life.
Q: What are the best channels for communicating political issues to consumer-members?
A: Use the same channels of communication that resonate the most effectively with your membership on every other matter. Do you have an especially strong readership of your monthly magazine or newsletter? Add a “From the Capital” section where you can discuss issues that arise. Do you have strong engagement with sections on your website? Build a sub-page where you can post fact sheets and information about issues as needed. Are your members particularly adept with social media? It’s ok to talk about the forces affecting the health of the co-op on your social media channels, too. Just be sure you can monitor the discussion and make sure you are controlling the message.
Q: Can you provide any tips for fielding negative and/or positive responses from member-owners?
A: Craft a consistent explanation for your position that is based on fact and transparency. Talk about the financial impact an issue would have and how that would trickle out to the membership. Talk about the threat to reliability that would be caused by an unfair mandate and how that would affect the community. And once you have that down, practice strict message discipline. Make sure anyone who may face questions about the issue – even down to customer service representatives and office staff who interact frequently with members – knows how to handle a question about the issue, or at least who they can direct the question to, if they get one.
Q: What resources would you recommend to co-op communicators to help them communicate through political issues?
A: NRECA has a suite of tools available called the Congressional Engagement Toolkit that is constantly updated with the most recent fact sheets, talking points, sample press releases and more to help you craft your message around different issues that come up at the national level. And take advantage of the expertise on state-level issues by contacting and utilizing materials from your statewide association.