​​​​By guest columnist: Jimmy Autry, CCC, APR, PSRA College of Fellow

From your early days working as a rural electric cooper​ative communicator, you just wanted to grow, contribute….and not get fired from the cooperative! You settled in and attacked the tasks that were assigned to you. With any luck, you found a mentor inside of your own cooperative who could tell you where to look next and help ​you to understand the cooperative program.

In reality, you were probably first hired as a technician at your cooperative…a graphic designer/artist, a photographer, or a writer. Youth Tour, employee communication, a newsletter, member advisory groups, and news releases were your standard fare. Along the way, you learned the basic tenets of the cooperative movement…its history and the seven cooperative principles.
But in today's world, you're going to be called upon to go far beyond those basic technical skills. You want to make yourself valuable to your organization in the area of member and public relations; and become a valued counselor for your management team. It doesn't matter if you report directly to the CEO/General Manager. Your goal is to offer counsel and leadership to your immediate supervisor, even if you don't supervise another employee.

Cooperative governance is an important area of interest which has risen up in recent years. For many cooperatives, it began with the discussion of the IRS 990 form…what it contained and how to make it available to members if they requested it. The first time you read the form, you discovered that board compensation and the salaries of several employees were listed for all to see.

From the actions of a few cooperatives across the country, members began to question the governance principles. Those members would often embrace the non-profit, one member-one vote principles, but they questioned member participation, board member succession and the premise of transparency.

In the past, the cooperative communicator was “allowed" or “directed" that those issues would be handled in the board room with the CEO. But over the last several years in the cooperative network, we've had a few cooperatives to make bad decisions in that board room. A fiscally irresponsible, self-serving cooperative board at a neighboring cooperative can bring new attention to your own cooperative and its policies, too. In this program, the weakest link can give us all a black eye.

Responding to activity in one South Carolina cooperative, a reporter generated a list of cooperative governance questions for all of the electric cooperatives in that state. Those questions are listed here and provide a great starting point for planning.

  1. What is your board's per diem?
  2. What are your policies as to per diem? Does the amount paid vary based upon the type of meeting/conference attended? If so, describe.
  3. Does the co-op offer paid health insurance to its current board members?
  4. Is paid health insurance offered to retired board members?
  5. Is paid health insurance offered to the families of either current or retired board members?
  6. Did the co-op pay per diem for any other local co-op activities authorized by the board, aside from co-op board or committee meetings?
  7. Please provide a copy of the co-op's 990 form.
  8. Does your co-op have a nominating committee? How is it appointed or elected?
  9. How many signatures are needed in order to petition to put your name on the ballot?
  10. What are the qualifications to serve as a trustee?
  11. When was the last time an incumbent member was challenged? When was the last time an incumbent member was defeated?
  12. In the last 5 years, how many new trustees have joined your board?
  13. What was the member turnout, as a percentage of membership, for each co-op from the most recent annual meeting?
  14. How can your co-op's members learn about board meeting dates and locations?
  15. How many training/educational sessions did the board's members attend for which they were paid a per diem? Specify the name of the conference and location where they were held.
  16. Aside from what is listed in response to Item 15 above, how many other conferences did the board's members attend for which they were paid a per diem? Specify the name of the conference and location where they were held.
  17. Is the totality of your co-op CEO's salary covered by an NRECA pension plan? If not, is a portion covered by a supplemental pension plan for the amount that exceeds the NRECA's retirement and security plan maximum as set by IRS regulations? Is the base amount payable as a lump sum, an annuity, or both? Is the supplement amount payable as a lump sum, an annuity, or both?
  18. I understand that a board member for one co-op must sometimes serve as a board member for a number of affiliated co-op organizations. Did the CEO or trustee board member receive per diem from service on any cooperative affiliated board?
  19. Do you return capital credits to your members on an annual basis? If so, how much did you return last year?

You may not have any active role in the decision-making which goes into these governance policies. But if the issues arise, a professional communicator may be called upon to explain them…even in front of a TV camera.

As outlined in the Always On report for rural electric communicators, there are important roles that a mature cooperative communicator will aspire to achieve. In the role of listener, a great communicator monitors the governance issues in other cooperatives (even in other states). One technique is to pull the newspaper “clippings" and Google files and save them away for future planning.
In your role as listener, you are not to gossip…and you are not to be nosy. But if you hear or see governance issues coming up outside your cooperative which could be detrimental, you must make your boss aware.

As the roles of communication grow over time, it may be hard to focus when you are just a one-person office. You may feel overwhelmed, but great communicators will make time for what's important.

Your own Board members have long sought financial counsel from their CPA, legal counsel from their lawyer, and construction counsel from their professional engineer. The pinnacle of your communicator's success is when Board members seek to gather your communications counsel, too.

The key role for the competent rural electric communicator is: For every decision made/action taken in the boardroom or in the staff meeting room, what is our plan to communicate that action? All plans begin with your research. Every plan has a target audience and it likely not the “general membership."

Some plans will require you to proactively release the information. Others will require you to designate a spokesman and be prepared to respond at a moment's notice if it comes up (i.e. A call from a legislator or reporter).

At its highest levels, the role of the professional cooperative communicator is to be a Manager: a strategist, a definer of target audiences, a leader, a questioner and the virtual conscience of the cooperative. As a manager, you will be asked to help the cooperative with its transparency and its compliance with rules, law, ethics, integrity and even its personality.

For so many of us, the cooperative began 50-75 years before we arrived on the scene. The program we inherited made it through many trials and challenges. Today, it is the communicator's responsibility to be one of the reasons that our movement survives and thrives toward its 100-year anniversary.

Read more on cooperative governance.