Do you remember the movie “Cool Hand Luke?” It’s that great Paul Newman prison movie with the famous line from Strother Martin, the prison warden, who says, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
You could take just about any problem involving humans and stick that into the conversation somewhere. It is a statement outlining at least part of the problem and suggesting a solution all in one sentence.
You can also look to the successes and failures of electric cooperatives and find communication, or the lack of it at the root.
Over the past 38 years as a cooperative communicator, I’ve seen a sea of change in how cooperatives communicate with their members. The emphasis on member communication is also one of the reasons I believe cooperatives have been successful.
From the beginning, cooperative leaders recognized the importance of communicating with members. First of all, members own the co-op. They deserve to know what the threats and opportunities are that impact their cooperative. Secondly, in the beginning electricity was a new and powerful convenience and huge productivity tool for the farm and home. Teaching members how to take advantage of this new tool was important. Throughout their history, electric cooperatives have been in and out of political battles. Communication, such as this magazine, was all a part of what helped cooperatives survive and thrive.
Today, communication is just as important as it was nearly 80 years ago. The electric utility business, that old stuffy, boring, stable business, is going through an incredibly complicated evolution. Call it the smart grid and add in deregulation, restructuring, climate change and the new dimension of distributed, renewable energy generation — solar, wind, etc. It’s getting complicated. It’s certainly not boring.
It used to be simple, well simpler. I remember at the first electric cooperative I worked for in Oklahoma, I was going through some old file cabinets and found a post card from a member. It simply said, when you get a chance can you come by my farm and fix the outage?
Now remember, the early days living on the farm meant you probably didn’t have a telephone. So sending a post card to report your outage at that time was not that unusual. Today, we panic if we misplace our smart phone. We text message each other and expect an instant reply. Or better yet, we expect our co-op with its fancy smart meters to already know we have an outage and have it posted to their outage map on the co-op’s website. Postcard? Isn’t that cute.
For a lot of communicators, the debate has been about paper or digital communications. I may be ready for retirement, and maybe I’m becoming that grumpy old man who doesn’t want to see things change, but I’m here to tell you paper still works. So does communicating face to face. At the same time, I want both paper and digital. I’m all for smart phones, social media and text communications. The more the better.
So bring on Twitter, even if our new president annoys me with his tweets. Bring on Facebook, and Pinterest and all the rest. Use all the new channels to communicate, but occasionally, put down the smart phone and just talk to each other face to face, especially us grumpy old men. We just need to vent, and yelling at the TV just isn’t that satisfying.
Your co-op and the staff of this magazine are taking on more and working to find ways to communicate with you in multiple ways. Illinois Country Living magazine is here to stay. Paper still works and has staying power. It lasts and gets passed around. But, we are working to improve our online presence and value too.
I’m retiring now, but one of my last big projects has been to have our library of 75 years worth of magazines scanned and put into Acrobat PDF format. Think about being able to search 75 years of recipes! Seriously, we did this paper scan to digitally preserve the amazing history of Illinois’ electric cooperatives and be able to share that history with the world.
There is a reminder on my bulletin board with a refrain from a Chris Le Doux song called “The Ride.” It is advice from a crusty old cowboy to a young boy taking his first pony ride. The refrain (and life advice) is “Sit tall in the saddle. Hold your head up high. Keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky. And live like you ain’t afraid to die. Don’t be scared. Just enjoy the ride.”
I’ve enjoyed my ride here with my co-op family. So, happy trails to you until we meet again. (Yes, that’s from Roy Rogers, and yes, I like cowboy songs.)