Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way.
Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. (Photo courtesy Adam Schwartz)

In many of the communities we serve, electric cooperatives are high-profile organizations with strong “brand” recognition and deep, often personal connections to many residents. We don’t just provide power. We’re philanthropic. We value and engage in community economic development. We’re frequently among our region’s largest employers.

We’re out there, front and center.

This is a good thing. Our history and our future are tied to our community leadership. But it also presents challenges. As community leaders, we’re expected to be available to our members, to know when and how to reach out and respond, and to provide quality, actionable information and guidance in good times and bad.

The complexity of meeting this expectation has increased in recent years. We’ve come a long way since the days of press releases and bill stuffers. Our members now want us to engage in ways that are convenient, familiar, and manageable for them, whether that’s in person, on social media, or via print, text, or web.

It used to be that co-op communication was done primarily by the CEO or the communications/member services executive. Over the past decade, however, I’ve come to espouse what I call the “Everyone’s a Communicator” philosophy.

That means every employee at your co-op—every one— should have the basic skills to articulate your mission, core values, and programs offered.

I’m certainly not suggesting that every employee should have the right to announce co-op policies or comment on controversial issues. But it’s not at all uncommon for your employees to have conversations about the cooperative at the grocery store, the credit union, the Little League game, or on social media. I call these “micro-exchanges,” and they can have a profound effect on how your co-op is perceived by your members.

By providing everyone from the receptionists to the line crews to the directors with training on how to talk about your co-op, and giving them timely updates about co-op priorities and programs, you’ll give voice to your message with an army of communicators who are genuine, trusted, and deeply connected to the community.

It can be a bit uncomfortable to empower your staff in this way, but a deliberate and carefully considered approach will lessen any anxiety or risk.

Send your full-time communicators and senior staff for training on how to build a cooperative-wide messaging and outreach plan.

Establish regular procedures for updating the full staff about new co-op priorities and initiatives.

Provide social media training to anyone who is authorized to post on your co-op’s social accounts. Also, consider expanding the pool of people eligible to post to provide a broader perspective and encourage more engagement.

Quality communication accomplishes a lot, but in my view, it has one prevailing consequence: trust. When we have the trust of our members, it allows us to look toward the future, consider ambitious possibilities, and take risks (when appropriate).

At your next staff meeting, look at the people around you and think about the hundreds or even thousands of micro-exchanges they have daily. Every one of them has circles of friends and acquaintances in your community. Every one of them has their own trusted voice. Every one of them presents a unique facet of your co-op.

Every one of them is a communicator.

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can email him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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