2 women and man speaking to each other

What You’ll Learn

Kurt Gruendling, the chair of the Foundation for Rural Services, discusses what programs are available from FRS and how to leverage those for maximum public relations value.

Guest Speaker

Kurt Gruendling

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What can your telco do to increase your visibility in the community? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of “StoryConnect: The Podcast.” My name is Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth and Pioneer. And I’m joined on this episode by Kurt Gruendling, the VP of Marketing and Business Development for Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, the marketing savant from Vermont. Here he is, Kurt Gruendling. Thanks for joining me.

Kurt Gruendling: Oh, thank you, Andy. It’s great to see you. And that was quite an introduction.

Andy Johns: Well, that name is not copyrighted, so if you need to put that on a shirt or something, you can, you can have at it. I want to talk about your session today. We’re here at the NTCA Sales and Marketing Conference, kind of the center of broadband marketing for the broadband world today. I want to talk about your session, one of your sessions, which is amplifying your brand across the community. So tell me a little bit about just a preview for those who aren’t here, a little bit about what the session is about and what kind of you’re hoping to communicate.

Kurt Gruendling: Absolutely, Andy. So that session is, we’ve got panelists from the Foundation for Rural Service. So Pam Becker, who’s our executive director, will be kind of kicking off the session, myself as the board chair this year. And then we have three great speakers that are each going to talk about how they use the Foundation for Rural Service programs to complement what they’re already doing in the community. So we’re going to talk about community grants. We’re going to talk about scholarships. We’re going to talk about youth tour. We’re going to talk about Virtual Living Room program. And then all the various tools, white papers, telecom glossary, etc., that companies can use to help position themselves in their communities and just really amplify their efforts of what they’re already doing, right? The FRS programs aren’t meant to be competitive. They’re meant to be complimentary. And, you know, the Foundation for Rural Service is everyone’s foundation, right? It’s all the NTCA members. So there’s some really great programs and, you know, you learn best from your peers.

Andy Johns: Yeah. And I think that’s what everybody’s been talking about here at this conference is, you know, this conference was canceled – or went online – for two years. And so everybody’s back here learning from each other. Have you talked to some of the panelists, or do you know what are some of the things you’re going to be sharing? Or what are some ways that you guys up at Waitsfield Champlain are working with FRS?

Kurt Gruendling: Absolutely. So the timing is perfect because our community grant application window is going to be opening in the next couple of weeks. So those will be awarded in the fall. But the application process starts now. So it’s good timing to remind people like, hey, here’s what it’s all about. Here’s some of the great projects, and we got some folks that are going to talk about some of the specific projects that, you know, over the last decade plus that, you know, they’ve worked on, who they partnered with in those communities. And it’s really an opportunity, obviously, to engage different nonprofits, you know, back home in your rural community and, you know, see where the need is. I mean, obviously, with with COVID and the pandemic the last couple of years, you know, many different areas, you know, in a community have been hit pretty hard, right: nonprofits, etc. some, you know, differently. So and every community is unique and those needs change. But as a reviewer over the past few years, it’s just been astounding to see the need and some of the great projects that FRS has been able to help the telcos fund, right?

Andy Johns: Yeah. There’s a lot of needs out there, and a lot of good work being done by a lot of good folks. And having a resource like this tap into, is fantastic. So you mentioned something there, and I don’t know how much you want to go into it, but without giving too much away, if somebody is looking at those grants, you have been a reviewer before. Do you have any broad or general tips about what they might ought to be sure to to include or focus on? Or what are some of the things – not asking for a cheat sheet – but some of the things that maybe have set folks apart in the past when they’re submitting those?

Kurt Gruendling: Like anything right, it’s telling that compelling story. But we all as marketers are pretty good about doing that. We do that each and every day with our, you know, with our companies, with our products and services. Obviously, you guys do a very good job of doing that.

Andy Johns: We’ve talked about storytelling on this podcast, a time or two. Yeah.

Kurt Gruendling: So yeah, it’s really all about that storytelling and just making sure, you know, dot your eyes across your Ts, you know, as part of the grant application. But we’re not there to catch people doing anything wrong, right? We’re there to help. And there’s always unfortunately, we wish we could fund them all.

Andy Johns: Sure.

Kurt Gruendling: But many companies use this as a process to collect those from their communities, from the nonprofits, to see what the need out there, and then wind up funding many of the others that don’t get funded by FRS on their own.

Andy Johns: That’s true, because once you have that pool coming in, that’s smart. So let’s talk abouta little bit. If folks are not familiar, and I imagine FRS is pretty deep in the industry, most folks are, but say somebody new and they’re listening to this, what are some things, you think, either are some ways that you guys are working with FRS at your telco or some things that you’ve heard people are kind of surprised? Oh, I didn’t know they did that. There may be some things out there FRS does that they don’t know.

Kurt Gruendling: Oh, that’s a great point. Obviously, we have all these different core things that we do, the scholarship programs or like the community grants. The Virtual Living Room is a unique partnership with with Cobank who’s been been funding them. And we do still have money available, funds available, but that’s specifically to develop what we call a Virtual Living Room in your rural community. So that is, you know, a room, a safe space. It could be a library, a VA. There’s a few spun up throughout the country, but a place where veterans can come and access a fiber optic network where they might not have that broadband connection at home, but tie in to the VA Connect program and have some of their virtual appointments with the VA. So that is, you know, a somewhat unique program. Like I said, there’s still money available there. If they need more information, you know, they can contact Pam at FRS or myself or any of the board members. And we’ll get people going in the right direction. The other piece, I think, is that that’s important to talk about is the different white papers that we’ve done, you know, year over year. And those have been…

Andy Johns: Full disclosure, we, WordSouth, had helped with one of those. At least one of those.

Kurt Gruendling: Absolutely. I think that was two or three years ago. That was another great one. And those are still timely, relevant information that as we’re going after different funding or educating different, whether that’s your town, your county, your state folks, your congressional delegation, you know, those tools come in very handy to have those white papers that are doing a deep dive on, you know, timely, relevant topics.

Andy Johns: So let’s talk about the communication aspect of it because, you know, obviously you’ve got a lot of experience in marketing communications. It can be tough to talk about the good work that you’re doing in a community. So if you’re a telco and you get some of these grants or you get, you know, the virtual living room or scholarships, it could be a little, I’ve heard people say, “Well, we don’t like to toot our own horn all the time.” What have you learned or what thoughts do you have when something does happen like this in terms of telling that story for your company to your community?

Kurt Gruendling: Well, that’s a great question. Yeah, there’s a lot there to unpack. But, you know, I truly believe we’re all doing good in our communities. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a family-owned company, whether you’re a cooperative, or a publicly traded commercial company, right? We’re all doing great things in our community, and it’s all about the customers and the communities we serve and making sure they’re connected. So, you know, I don’t look at it as bragging. I’m looking at it as, you know, we’re partnering with different people in the community, you know, and oftentimes, right. That lens can shift, you know, especially I mean, if it’s a scholarship, if it’s a community grant, you know, that nonprofit telling is that story as well, right? Where it’s not necessarily self-serving, but they have a compelling reason to tell the community and others why they’re, you know, that they just won this great, amazing grant.

Andy Johns: Right.

Kurt Gruendling: Whether it’s technology, whether it’s for, you know, building a playground in the community park or whatever that might be, right? So that’s always right. You can partner with your partner, so to speak, to help tell that story.

Andy Johns: Sure. It feels weird to talk about yourself. Then have have somebody else do it. Find a way to get that done. Great. Well, last question I had for you. What advice do you have if there’s somebody, whether it’s through FRS or something else, and there’s somebody maybe who’s whose telco or utility doesn’t do a lot in the community, what advice would you have to them if they’re trying to take those first baby steps of getting started?

Kurt Gruendling: Come talk to any of us, right? Any of the board members, any of the folks we can point you in the right direction and tell you what others are doing. And you know, Andy, I mean, you and I have been in this industry for a while, right? We learn from our peers.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. Excellent. Well, he is Kurt Gruendling. He is with Waitsfield Champlain Telco up in Vermont. And thanks for joining me.

Kurt Gruendling: Yeah, I appreciate it. Andy.

Andy Johns: We are here. We’ve got a couple of more episodes we’ll be recording here at the NTCA Sales and Marketing Conference. Until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.