What You’ll Learn

Chris Jones at Middle Tennessee Electric Cooperative, TN, discusses the shift from reporter to CEO, the biggest challenges for utility communicators, the evolution of utility communications and how staff can prove the value of consumer engagement to utility leadership.

Guest Speaker

Chris Jones

About Our Guest

Chris Jones is the CEO of Middle Tennessee Electric and winner of the 2022 J.C. Brown CEO Communication Leadership Award from NRECA.

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.

Megan McKoy-Noe: How do you prove the value of communications to utility leadership? That’s what we’ll be talking about today on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. Hello. My name is Megan McKoy-Noe. I’m one of the storytellers at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources and your host for this episode filling in for Andy Johns. We’re recording live at NRECA’s CONNECT Conference in Seattle, Washington, with 500 of our closest co-op communicator friends. As Andy always says, any noise you might hear in the background is ambiance or in this case, the sound of a very large and much needed group hug. I’m joined in this episode by Chris Jones, CEO of Middle Tennessee Electric, and winner of the 2022 J.C. Brown CEO Communication Leadership Award from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Chris, thank you so much for joining me.

Chris Jones: I’m honored to join you, Megan. Thank you. And it’s a delight to be with you and to be here. Like you said, it’s sO encouraging to be together anywhere after the pandemic. But this group getting together, the communicators getting together, There’s always a buzz and excitement. So it’s great to be back.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Well, I am very happy to be back as well. It’s a rush, I’ll tell you. Now, Chris, when we first met about a decade ago, you had just taken on the role of CEO at your utility. You brought solid storytelling roots to the corner office as a former reporter, editor, vice president of communications member relations at Middle Tennessee Electric. I’m just curious, as someone that has been in the field for a while myself and used to be a reporter too, which is always fun, what is the shift from reporter to CEO felt like? And are you glad you made the move?

Chris Jones: Well, I’m absolutely glad I made the move, but I didn’t take the traditional route. So I went to school for communications. And then, as you mentioned, you know, entered the workplace in various kind of communications functions, as a reporter, I was even on the radio for a while doing a radio show, stuff like. Just, you know, not knowing what I wanted to do when I got out of school in all candor. But I found my way to an electric cooperative. After a few years, Middle Tennessee Electric, where I was communications coordinator, and I just was very fortunate. The story of my career is just, you know, I’ve been very blessed and fortunate, no question about it. So when I came there, my mentor, Frank Jennings, who many in the communications field at NRECA, among the cooperatives will remember and know. He was the vice president of the department that I was working in. He hired me, and after a few years, just actually three and a half years, Frank had the opportunity to become the CEO, and he succeeded. So he was, again, my predecessor in every respect. So he became at Middle Tennessee, the first communicator. Now he was communications and member services, but the first communicator, if you will, to become CEO at Middle Tennessee. And I think among the state, that was probably the case. He was the first. So he was more of a pioneer than I am. So I was very fortunate in that I didn’t have to put on the the sales job of why communications needed to be at the table because he was already bought into that. But so, again, very fortunate in that regard.

Megan McKoy-Noe: That helped so much. You know, on former episodes of StoryConnect: The Podcast, we have interviewed folks that went from being in the communications role to being a general manager or CEO. And it’s always interesting. Sometimes you have to like prove that you have a right to be there because the role is traditionally held maybe by accountants, engineers, folks from other roles at the utility. So I love that you had someone that set the standard before you and proved that communications and communicators really can bring a lot of power to that position. Because communications is really important. Now, I wanted to ask you the J.C. Brown Award, which you won, and congratulations again. Very exciting. It recognizes a leader committed to advancing communications not only at your utility, but across our industry. I’m just curious, what do you feel is the biggest communication challenge that is facing telco and electric co-op leaders today?

Chris Jones: Oh, that’s a great question. I think among other things, if I’m not sure about number one, but it’s got to be close. It’s just the fact that there are so many competing messages out there in the marketplace, if you will. So when we talk about how, you know, we have such a great story to tell. We’re doing such good things. But oftentimes our members don’t know it. Don’t understand it. Don’t see it. And so our challenge at Middle Tennessee Electric — and I know for many other co-ops — is to simply tell our story and for that story to be heard so members can understand what we’re doing. And when members understand that they are members and what their co-op does, then they’re more satisfied. So for us, our vision is an organization is all about driving to world class levels of member satisfaction. And so we know that in order to do that, we’ve got to be good storytellers. We’ve got to get the message out and go beyond just the meat and potatoes of, yeah, we’ve got to be reliable and affordable, but we’ve got to tell the story of other things we’re doing, whether it’s in energy efficiency or community engagement. How we’re keeping rates low, how we’re being reliable, how we’re focusing on renewables and making a difference for our community and our members. They need to they need to know that beyond just the bill they’re getting from us. So that’s a challenge for all of us as communicators externally. So I don’t know if that’s number one, but it’s got to be way up there.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Well, and we are very big believers in the power of storytelling and the role of storytelling for cooperatives and utilities right now. So now you have had your story change a lot over the last few years. You’ve had to innovate quickly, which has been really interesting to watch. I’ve been a fan of Middle Tennessee for a while and just seeing what your team is doing, you join forces with the telco in 2018 to deliver broadband to rural Tennessee, a challenge that a lot of our members are working on right now. And when you merged with a municipal utility in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic because, you know, you love a good challenge. Yeah, Middle Tennessee Electric became the second largest electric co-op in the nation. How has your co-op’s communication focus shifted to manage so many changes successfully?

Chris Jones: There’s so much to that, Megan. You know, we first of all, let me back up just a bit because you mentioned innovation a while ago, and I think that’s so important. And I think that is a spirit and a skill, if you will, that communicators can help make a difference for their co-ops and help, you mentioned, helping leadership understand that may not be versed in communication. Innovation can be a space where communicators, I believe, can make a difference because it’s not your innovation is not a tactic; it’s a strategy. And innovation is not a project; it’s a philosophy. So it’s you know, sometimes people say, “Well, we’ll be innovative. We’ll do X.” Well, it’s more about how we’re doing things, and how we’re looking at things. And again, the creativity of communicators and the artistic aspects that communicators can bring, you know, beyond just science and art. But it’s a lot of art. That kind of perspective, I think, can help co-op leadership who are more in the hard sciences, open their minds to innovation, because as organizations we are by design, reactive and traditional, and we’ve got to step beyond that. And innovation can help us get us there. And communicators, I think, can help with that. So, you know, again, when we looked at the strategic landscape, and as you mentioned, for us, the innovative answers proved to be through a rigorous process that we needed to be engaged in acquisition activity.

Chris Jones: So we actually the telco you mentioned, the broadband company, that was an acquisition. And so United Communications is our broadband company now. And it was again, it was a process that was done collaboratively. As was the case with the municipal utility that we acquired. Again, we treated it as a merger, but that was a 70,000 customer municipal and I mean a large, relatively large one. And so those those things are — just cut to the chase — they worked out very well. But in terms of the communication, obviously these were very — especially the municipal merger — was a very political situation. And so being open and being forthcoming with information for our members, for the customers of the municipal electric general communications, engagement with governmental and political media, that all had to be taken up to another notch. And it was very challenging. And we didn’t win every battle as far as that is concerned, but we had to really think carefully and plan and set a communications plan going into it, so we could be as prepared as we could.

Megan McKoy-Noe: And did you have both, I assume, an internal and external communication plan, because I have found that a lot of folks, we have so much on our plates that sometimes we focus on our membership, our consumers, first in getting the message to them and we forget about our staff. Or don’t forget, but they don’t know everything that we know, and we might not include them in every step of the way. With your change communications, how did you make sure that the staff were in step with the strategy you had for your utility?

Chris Jones: Well, I’m glad you asked me that, because I should have said that to start with, because that was such an important part of the overall strategy and to the success of both, especially with the electric utility merger. Because we had to be forthcoming as we could be. There were some certain things we couldn’t share at the time, but as forthcoming as we could be with our employees, teammates, and also with those on the municipal side. So we were working as separate staffs, both utilities, working together for many months before this actually came to be. So we had to make the commitment that to say, “Okay, you know, this could happen. We want it to happen, but we can’t just wait until it happens in order to begin to be engaged with all these different pieces.” And communications was a big part of that. So what we could share, we shared as quickly as we could, and we had plans to share information as we got to certain milestones to make sure our employees were informed. But from a senior leadership team perspective with both organizations, we had to have wide open communications and buy-in across the board.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, Middle Tennessee Electric seems to invest very heavily in communication and community engagement. You serve grilled cheese sandwiches in a custom food truck at member events. Jay was just sharing that with us on the podcast a few weeks ago. You share sample campaigns with your virtual member advisory committee, which I’ve heard is going very well. You even I’ve heard now, correct me if I’m wrong, but even post-pandemic, you’re still holding virtual town halls for your staff to make sure, as we were just speaking about, that they know what’s going on at the utility. Now, not every utility has the same resources as you do. So I’m curious many communicators they have to pick, where do we invest our money? We don’t want to be spread too thin, right? So where can you invest your time and your resources to make the biggest impact? Now, as a CEO, which communication channels and community efforts do you feel offer the most value that the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak?

Chris Jones: Well, I’m not sure. But, you know, the ones you mentioned, and I don’t know if I can remember the ones, but the member advisory committee and also like the virtual town halls, those are very inexpensive efforts at the end of the day. And the member advisory committee, which is 75 randomly selected members that we survey over the course of the year quarterly. And that’s been a very valuable resource for us to understand member expectations and to engage with our membership. After our annual meeting, we set it up to where I was able to have a discussion with that group and that was fantastic. So I’m glad I was not asked any too difficult questions, but it was a it was very enjoyable, and I think effective. But the town halls you mentioned, we started those during the pandemic, and we continue those. To me, if I’m thinking of co-ops that are maybe smaller, but they’re spread out and have offices, different places, that is a super easy way on a monthly basis to, you know, to provide information, to create a “ask me anything,” you know, situation. Now, there’s nothing that substitutes for being in person, but there’s only so much you can do. And that’s a great way to connect with everybody at one time, those who can and want to. So I would recommend that those who aren’t doing that take a close look at that capability because it’s, again, not that expensive.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that. I know I used to work at a utility, and we had two offices and just trying to get to office staff together for anything could be a challenge. You know, you’d have to close certain things down. How many offices or branches do you all have?

Chris Jones: Yeah, we have eight total offices across four primary counties. And I’m going to jump back to the grilled cheese because I can’t let that. So whenever the grilled cheese came up, you know, I had to admit I was skeptical. You know, are we really going to do this? But, you know, I want to encourage creativity and empower and what not. So Jay Sanders, our community relations guy, just super, super energetic and a fantastic teammate, that was his passion. He was convinced this would work. And so, he was right. It has worked very, very well. It’s a great way to engage with community. And he investigated all kinds of recipes for grilled cheese, and he’s come up with a winner. He’s won a couple of tasting contests, even. So, it’s been fantastic. So I really commend again. To me, I think part of the message they’re making is to give people creativity, empower them to think and to, you know, broaden horizons. And we’ve benefited from that, no doubt.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, for a utility without a communicator in the corner office. I mean, you were lucky when you were coming up at Middle Tennessee because you had that leadership supporting you there. But not everyone has that. So how can a communicator demonstrate the value of communications to prove that a campaign or a new tactic is worth the investment, you know, the effort that you’re going to have to put into it.

Chris Jones: I don’t doubt — I know it’s a daunting task. In some cases, especially. So what I would say is, think of it simply, that’s another audience. As communicators, we’ve got to know our audiences. And so know your audience and know what can persuade your audience, know how to inform your audience. This being the, you know, the senior leadership team or the CEO in this case. And, you know, you’ve got a lot to sell, if you will, in terms of how communications, as you mentioned before, is becoming, it’s super important now. It’s becoming more and more important as time goes. And with all the challenges we’re facing from utility, technical challenges and changing industry to social media and the changing landscape of communications, the expectation, there’s a great case that you can build, but you’ve got to persuade. So don’t go overboard, you know, be yourself. But, you know, lay out that case. And if it doesn’t work the first time, do it again. Point to other examples in the co-op community where this is being successful. Not that anyone will listen to me, but if I can be of help to someone, please reach out to me. Because again, sometimes we get, as you know, peer CEOs who are engineering operations, finance focused, very important. But sometimes there can be a tendency to get, you know, just stay in your comfort zone and not want to open up. And we need to as co-ops, there’s no question about it.

Megan McKoy-Noe: So we’ve all been through a lot of changes over the last few years. I don’t think that’s going to slow down anytime soon. How do you think that utility communications is going to evolve over the next five, ten years?

Chris Jones: Yeah, so, you know, as you mentioned, so many changes that you think of the technology and social media and how that is evolved over, very quickly. So for us, you know, I wish I knew the answer to that question because we need to know. We’re trying. Yeah, I would love to be able to do that, but I would be divulging all my secrets, and I’m not allowed to do that. No, it is something that we are wrestling with in Middle Tennessee, because, again, I go back to that notion of there’s just so many competing messages and whatnot. But I think, you know, more for us, easy to say, hard to do. You know, we’ve got more and more access to data. We need to mine that data, understand it, help that to shape our communications. We need to, Middle Tennessee Electric needs to do a better job of that. And then, you know, we haven’t traditionally been so much targeted communicators or marketers as co-ops. You know, we’re going to see more, we’re going to need to do more of that. So those would be the two categories I would point to. I think, moreover, and I think we’ll see change in the next five years. We’ll, you know, we’ll be more data driven and then we’ll do more targeted communications is what I think.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I really like that. You’re right. We have been sharing the same message with everyone and instead, I think more custom messages to specific audiences. And you’re right, using the data. I had someone talking to me yesterday about like website design and thinking, like using search terms to help design your entire website, instead of what you think should be there. So using the data for what your consumers are doing to drive all of your communications, it just makes more sense. They know more about what they need than we do. And so listening to them and sharing their stories, and I just think it’s a great thing that we have the capabilities to do that now. It’s exciting. It’s a very exciting time. I mean, change is crazy. But as Melissa Shaw in our office says, change can be hard, but it always comes with opportunity. So, now before I let you go, do you have any last thoughts for communicators that are struggling to prove the impact of their work to utility leadership?

Chris Jones: Well, yeah, I would just say, you know, be encouraged. Keep your chin up if you’re struggling with that. I think that events like CONNECT and connecting with other co-op communicators on a regular basis is important. Again, communications has never been more important than today, so even if you don’t feel as valued as you would like to be right now, know that you are in a space and where you are for a reason. I’m going to get philosophical, but stay the course, help champion the cause. Because we all understand and know that we can make a difference if given the right opportunity, and just wait for that opportunity, it’s going to come.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Well, thank you for sharing your insights with our family of utility pioneers. Congratulations again on your award. Very exciting. He is Chris Jones, the president and CEO of Middle Tennessee Electric. And I’m your host, Megan McKoy-Noe at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And 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.