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Blue Ridge Electric Captures Top Honor in National Communication Competition PDF Print
Written by Renee R. Whitener, BREMCO   
Thursday, 19 May 2011 14:10

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation recently received the Edgar F. Chesnutt Award for Best Total Communication Program, the highest honor bestowed by the Spotlight on Excellence Awards program. Blue Ridge Electric was recognized during the opening session of CONNECT ’11, a national communication, marketing and member services conference convened by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives.
NRECA Chief Executive Officer Glenn English made the announcement by introducing a video presentation detailing Blue Ridge Electric’s communication plan, “Christmas Ice Storm Crisis Communications.” The co-op developed a comprehensive plan employing multiple communication vehicles, which the judges praised for being in place before the crisis hit. When one did occur over Christmas 2009 – an ice storm that caused the worst damage and outages in 20 years in northwestern North Carolina – Blue Ridge Electric was prepared.
The co-op communications team updated the public through a variety of outlets: online resources, social media and media relations. Knowing that consumers without power would stay connected through smart phones or find locations with electricity – a friend’s house, a hotel or other nearby business, so they could use computers to stay in contact – the co-op updated the news media and its members through its website,

The co-op had developed a contingency website accessible from its homepage. The emergency site included the latest news releases on restoration efforts, links to area media outlets’ websites, the outage line’s phone number, an outage map and video podcast announcements from Blue Ridge Chief Executive Officer, Doug Johnson, and Director of Public Relations, Renee Whitener.

Another way the co-op communicated with members was by meeting them online at a site that many were already using: Facebook. Research shows that more than 600 million people connect through Facebook, and 57 percent of the nation’s electric co-ops use the social network as do news media organizations, according to NRECA.

Blue Ridge Electric used the social medium to great advantage, knowing that it would also help inform its membership. Facebook users who “liked” the co-op’s page grew from 50 to almost 500 in less than a week. Co-op members were encouraged to share information and photographs on Blue Ridge’s page, which became a sounding board of praise from members during the restoration efforts.

In addition to Facebook, the co-op used various methods to update print, broadcast and electronic media through email, online chats, cell phone conversations and 23 news releases within six days. One Spotlight on Excellence judge summed it up: “The research, planning and implementation across traditional and new media contributed to excellence and successful results …The ability to maximize customer satisfaction during [this crisis] warrants Blue Ridge Electric’s receiving the 2011 Edgar F. Chesnutt Award.”

Blue Ridge Public Relations Director Renee Whitener and Communications Manager Susan Simmons accepted the award from English, who praised the co-op for its outstanding achievement. “Without question, Blue Ridge Electric has demonstrated the success of communication planning, applying resources, and best of all, anticipating member needs,” he said. “By putting their members first, they lived up to the cooperative promise to its fullest extent.”

The Spotlight on Excellence Awards recognize electric cooperatives across the country for their high-quality communication and marketing efforts. Nearly 800 entries were submitted in this year’s competition and were judged by faculty members of the University of Missouri-Columbia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of South Carolina. Edgar F. Chesnutt, for whom the award is named, was the manager of corporate communication with Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Little Rock, from 1961 until his death in 1987. He wrote a highly praised handbook on public relations, “Getting in Step.”

Electric co-op professionals in marketing, member services and communications from across the country attended the CONNECT ’11 Conference, which was held May 9-12. The event offered workshops, seminars, exhibits, and other educational presentations pertaining to the electric utility business and the cooperative sector.

NRECA is the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives, which provide service to 42 million people in 47 states. Touchstone Energy is a national alliance of local, consumer-owned electric cooperatives providing high standards of service to customers large and small. Touchstone Energy Cooperatives serve their members with integrity, accountability, innovation and a long-standing commitment to community.

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