Co-ops that have avoided significant struggles can still learn lessons from what happened at Valley Electric Association.
The key is to have a proactive approach to reputation management to be ready for challenging situations, says Stephen Bell, NRECA’s senior director of media and public relations and lead creator of a recently released co-op reputation management toolkit.
“What’s your communications strategy if this happens to you?” Bell asks. “If you don’t have one, get one.”
Bell encourages co-ops to consider a pathway that hinges on “the four S’s.”
Structure: “Having the right structure in place to answer questions from members, policymakers, and journalists is key. Without an agreed-upon structure in place, the co-op risks wasting valuable time getting on the same page during a reputational challenge. If a reporter calls, who fields the call? If you’re putting out a press statement, who approves it? Talk among your senior leadership about reputation issues before you’re behind the 8-ball.”
Speed: The ability to respond quickly and effectively is crucial, Bell says. “The first step out of the box is the most important one.”
Skill: “Do you have the communications leadership and staff with the necessary skill to manage your reputation? How do you work with the statewide association and NRECA? Do you need someone on retainer to help you?”
Social media: “How are you leveraging your social media platforms? One co-op published more than 40 social media posts in one month. But almost 80% of those posts were about power outages. They weren’t out there talking about all the good things they’re doing. Consider the message that sends to your members—quantity is not the key to success here.”
Pat Mangan, NRECA’s director of governance education, urges co-ops to talk about what happened at VEA and learn from it.
“Ask yourselves: ‘Are we vulnerable? What can we do to reduce our vulnerability?’” he says. “Look at your checks and balances. Do you have anti-fraud policies? Do you need to shore them up? This is not to say we don’t trust our management. This is just good governance.”
Every co-op needs to decide for itself how transparent it should be, Mangan continues.
“Have a discussion around your board table,” he says. “Do you want to put your IRS Form 990 online? If so, do you want to add an explanation so people will understand this complex tax form better? Do you want your members to attend board meetings? Are there questions about board pay? If so, do you have answers?”