What You’ll Learn
Many utilities are coping with change, whether they’re creating a hybrid workforce, building broadband service or connecting to members in new ways. Mark Owen, communication manager at South Central Power Company, shares how his team communicated with staff and membership about the case for change during a building and utility brand consolidation.
Guest SpeakerMark Owen
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 can you effectively communicate change? That’s what we’ll be talking about 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 Mark Owen, communications manager at South Central Power Company in Ohio, serving 123,000 members across parts of 24 counties. That is a huge area to cover. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mark Owen: My pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, your utility recently consolidated from five facilities into three super regional facilities. I hadn’t heard that term before. It’s exciting. Super regional. Do they wear capes? Is it that kind of a thing?
Mark Owen: I probably invented that term, you know, on the fly when we were discussing topics. But I would say it’s a larger region because we have parts of 24 counties. For a lot of co-ops, their region may just be one county. You know, central Ohio for us is eight, ten counties possibly. So, you know, that’s where the term “super regional” originated.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I like it. I like it. This isn’t the first time that you’ve encountered change, though. South Central Power was created by the consolidation of several smaller co-ops and one regional private utility as well. It sounds to me, as I’ve talked to you about this, that change is almost a part of your co-op’s culture. It’s something you’ve had to encounter and find solutions for along the way. Now, many other utilities are coping with change, too, whether it’s creating a hybrid workforce, building broadband service or connecting to members in new ways. So we wanted to you to share how you communicated about the case for change, both with your staff and your membership, because it’s really important to consider all the audiences that are going to be impacted by change. So Mark, how do you share your story with staff both before, during and after changes take place?
Mark Owen: Well, you’re right. I think, you know, change a little bit is in our DNA. At South Central, just the history of mergers and consolidations, different things that have happened through the years. But this was a big one. It was really a historic change to look at facilities. And it’s really something that our trustees and our executive staff started looking at several years ago. And they were very upfront and very transparent, communicating with staff throughout that period that this was a possibility and that this was something that was being evaluated. And like a lot of co-ops, our north star is our members. And so we always tied it back to remembering that the solution to our facilities problem was going to be what was in the best interest of our members.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I like that. Now, you mentioned briefly that you were telling folks before you’d even decided to make the change. Can you talk to me about your timeline for communicating change, I guess, first off with your staff?
Mark Owen: I would say really, as soon as it became a topic of consideration in the board room. You know, we shared it very transparently with staff that this was a possibility that this may occur. Those conversations went on with trustees and executives for several years. Ance the decision was finally made to consolidate, at that point, really the executive team worked with human resources, with communications, to develop a plan of how we best communicate that to the audiences that are going to be impacted. We really started with supervisors. We felt that was an important place to start in this case, so that they understood the case for change. They understood the reasons, the “why” that is so important to answer. Then we went out, and we had an all employee meeting, and we went from there.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Now what was your change communication strategy? We’ve been talking about staff, but you have a lot of other audiences to consider. What was your strategy with your members, community leaders and other external audiences?
Mark Owen: We absolutely had to consider community audiences. We were closing an office, and I think two communities where we had had a presence for 60 years. And so it was a big change for those communities to understand. In Ohio, there’s actually even tax implications for that. So there was a lot to consider as well as the members. And you’ve got folks that maybe have been driving to the office every month for 20 years to pay their bill, and they are concerned about what’s going to happen to these employees. They were concerned about how is my power going to be restored in a timely fashion when this building is gone. So we had to make those explanations and make that case as well.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, I love hearing about the the thought behind the communications, but was there also maybe a message that you shared, like a campaign that you used for this effort?
Mark Owen: We really kept it simple. You know, we thought about all kinds of cute slogans and different things. But at the end of the day, we always just brought it back to the why. And this was the least-cost option going forward. We had aging facilities that dated in some cases to the 1950s that would need significant investment if we were to continue to operate those offices. By consolidating, we really achieved all the business needs. We’re better able to serve the member, and we were better able to make the most of that member dollar. And really, it was about the future and investing in facilities that were going to be the right facilities at the right places for the next generation of members.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I really like that about being good stewards and really looking ahead at what the needs were going to be. We’ve talked about the way that the timeline for communicating with each of these audiences. But what channels did you use? I mean, did you have printed material going out to folks? Were you doing some digital communications as well to communicate change with each audience?
Mark Owen: Right. We had a lot of communications, collateral. We took advantage of our statewide magazine. We had posters made in the lobby. That’s really some of a lot of what we did with members. We sent letters to members who had been any member that had paid in one of those offices that was going to be impacted in the last two years received a letter. So we really tried to hit it as many ways as we could when it comes to employees. Again, we really felt that when you’re dealing with a big change, a lot of it comes down to who you’re going to hear that from. Who’s going to deliver the message? Your supervisor, are they prepared to answer your questions about the change? And coming at it from that angle was really important for us.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I really like that. And equipping everyone to be able to answer those questions when they heard them, too. We had talked earlier before we started recording about talking points. Could you share a little bit about how you used segmented talking points, focused on how the change would impact each audience. And you targeted them to specific staff roles, which I thought was a really important thing to consider.
Mark Owen: Right. Before announcing the change to all employees and certainly before announcing it to members, we did a meeting with all supervisors across the organization. They were provided with a tool kit that had talking points, that had some change management handouts, some things that allowed them to understand how employees process and deal with change. Your average person doesn’t like change, and it doesn’t matter if the change is you’re going to be working in a different building or if the change is, you know, we’re going to paint this wall blue that used to be red. People get uncomfortable sometimes with change. And so we really wanted the right person to deliver that message and be prepared to answer questions. In the communications business, we love newsletters, and we love emails and making things pretty. But I think you and I both know at the end of the day, somebody gets that nice looking, pretty newsletter, and they read it. If they go ask their supervisor some questions about it and the supervisor either doesn’t know the answer or worse is dismissive about it and says, “Oh, it’s not really that important.” Well, you’re dead in the water. It doesn’t matter how pretty your newsletter is. And we really tried to recognize that and and move in that direction with communications.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I think that’s really important. Now, I love hearing about success stories, examples of when things went really well, especially when we’re talking about storytelling. So could you tell us about a storytelling win that South Central Power had during this change?
Mark Owen: Right. Well, I think one thing we did that was kind of fun and was sort of a pretty newsletter, frankly. We rolled out a new digital communications, just short term special purpose newsletter. We called it the Countdown Chronicle, and we kind of made it really kind of fun and cartoonish. And very light hearted, very casual voice, really, to communicate things that we wanted people to be excited about. You know what restaurants are going to be within driving distance of the new office. We talked about, you know, we shared photos of the construction. We did a lot of things to make it fun. But we also put in a lot of the brass tacks stuff that you need to know. When is your moving crate arriving at your office? How do you pack it? Who’s going to set up your computer for you? What day do you move based on work group? And to go along with that newsletter, Human Resources, we worked really closely with them. They had move coordinators, and they the move coordinators would touch base with small groups of employees just to make sure that they understood. And again, there was a backstop there that we weren’t just sending emails and calling it a day.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that title, “The Countdown Chronicles,” because it makes it seem like almost an adventure. Maybe that’s the fantasy reader in me, but it’s an adventure that you’re all doing together, and it’s more of like getting everybody on the same page, on the same team, and sharing the same vision. Which is, I think, really important when you’re doing something like this and communicating a huge change like this. So I’m curious. We hear the good, but I also kind of want to know if you had any problems, maybe misunderstandings or communication gaps that you didn’t anticipate, and you had to address head on?
Mark Owen: Yeah, it was an adventure, and it wasn’t always sunshine and roses, as you can probably guess. And you know, the change, it was a big change for some employees. And for a lot of folks, it meant they had a much longer commute than they had had previously. And so those were some of the tough conversations that supervisors and others had to have. We did reinforce to everyone that, you know, no one was losing the jobs. That was important for us to tell the members that, again, a lot of the members, you know, were worried that has this person that’s been helping me in the office, you know, what’s going to happen to them. So that was a good, good story to tell. But yeah, it was definitely a challenge to deal with people having to change the location they drive to every day. People have a routine. You drop your kid off at school, and you turn left. And you might have to turn right, and it might be a little further drive. So those were some of the challenges that we had to work through. But at the end of the day, we arrived. The adventures are in the rearview mirror, and we’re moving forward.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I am very happy to hear that. Now, before I let you go, is there anything else that you learned about telling your story along the way during this amazing adventure that we’re so fondly looking at in the rearview mirror now?
Mark Owen: I think it’s really that, you know, as a communicator, you’ve got to think beyond your traditional toolset and skill set when you’re dealing with a big change. And you need to be collaborative, partner with human resources, partner with your supervisor level of employee, and really leverage that and work with everybody across the organization to make sure that you’re delivering the message the best you can to everyone, get a feedback loop going so that you’re hearing concerns and questions in real time and incorporating that into future communications. Just be responsive, listen and do the best you can.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with our family of utility pioneers. He is Mark Owen, communications manager at South Central Power in Ohio. 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.