Pioneer’s newest team member Jonathan Farmer talks about creative ways he and other co-op communicators have had to adapt events including retirement celebrations.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What are some things you can do to keep the celebration going, even in a virtual setting? 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 I’m joined on this episode by Jonathan Farmer, who is the Director of Member Solutions at Pioneer Utility Resources. Jonathan, thank you for joining me.
Jonathan Farmer: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me, Andy.
Andy Johns: So Jonathan is the new guy on our team. He’s been here about two weeks. He comes over with some experience in the electric co-op world. And he’s got some interesting stories. I think the one we’re going to focus on here in a minute is about the virtual retirement celebration that he did at a cooperative where he was working.
Andy Johns: But before we get too much into that, I had a couple of things that I wanted to announce and then get Jonathan to tell us a little bit about himself. So two things I’d like to put on your radar. If you’re a listener to StoryConnect: The Podcast, you might enjoy Rural Broadband Today, which is another podcast that we are producing here with WordSouth and the greater Pioneer family. Stephen Smith hosts that one. He has a lot of heavy hitters talking about policy issues and the process of bringing broadband to rural America. The other thing I want to put on your radar for everyone is that we’ve got a special series [coming up]. We’ve never done anything quite like it before, but it’s going to be led by Carrie Huckbey, and she is doing a special series. It is going to come out later this spring about the customer journey. So I’m excited for that one to get going, and Carrie is always great. So she’s got some well-respected communicators around the industries we serve that’ll be on that one. So I know you’ll be excited to check that one out when it comes out. We’ll have more details coming soon.
Andy Johns: Jonathan, I’m excited to have you on. Like I said before, we get too much into the virtual retirement, some of the other things that you’ve worked on. Just give us a little bit of background about yourself.
Jonathan Farmer: Sure, happy to. I grew up around co-ops. My father was working at Coos-Curry Electric Co-op over here in Oregon, on the coast down by California, actually, and learned how to ride my bike there. I grew up with that family cooperative atmosphere. And eventually we moved around to New Mexico for a bit to Idaho. But my dad was always around the cooperative world. When I got my degree from Western Oregon University in communications, I graduated from their leadership program there. I was trying to think what do I want to do with this exactly. I thought that he [my dad] had it really, really good. The co-op world is a fun place to be. It’s exciting, change and challenge. And so I got my start at Consumers Power here in Philomath, Oregon. I was a member services specialist there. I did energy efficiency for half the time, out and about in members’ homes. And then the other half was communications and kind of everything else: other duties as assigned, which was annual meeting and a youth tour. I’ve been a youth chaperone around for the past four years and really enjoyed that.
Andy Johns: You deserve a medal for that.
Jonathan Farmer: I’m a kid at heart too, I guess. And so I guess I fit right in. Maybe I’m not so much a chaperone, but just another as a kid. But it’s a fantastic program, and I love my opportunity to participate there. Then I decided to move on to a director of member services at Lane Electric Cooperative, which is when this whole pandemic stuff really became an issue and forced us to be a bit more creative, even more so than communications folks at cooperative’s already have to be so.
Andy Johns: Great. That is a professional segway into our first topic. So that’s excellent. We’re on a good track. We’re excited to have you on the team. And I know that folks will be seeing Jonathan on other things we’re doing, whether it’s webinars or at conferences. He’s going to be representing Pioneer, ARC, and WordSouth quite a bit in the coming months when hopefully we can start doing some of that stuff again. But you mentioned on there when the pandemic hit, you had to kind of be even more creative than before. One of the creative ideas that I heard there that you had done was involved retirement for folks, a couple of people retiring. And those are the folks, whether it’s graduation or wedding or retirement, any of that, the folks with the milestone, it’s particularly tough for one of those during this pandemic. But you guys came up with a pretty good idea to still honor those folks at that time.
Jonathan Farmer: I like to think so anyways, and judging by their reactions afterwards, I would say that they’re pleased with it as well. It was a hard sell, however. The first initial thoughts that everybody has is a Zoom meeting with all these little squares and everybody trying to talk over each other. And that just wasn’t what it was going to be. We just had to avoid that at all costs. And so I tried to find a way to kind of do a little bit of both because with this pandemmic, their family wants to be involved in that as well, but they have a tougher time doing so.
Jonathan Farmer: And so we decided we’d still start off with a bit of a Zoom with a presentation really. So you saw that slideshow of all the old pictures from back in the day that everybody wants to see. And it really allowed even more people to participate than would normally participate, since it could be anywhere in the country or wherever they needed to be. And so that was a good way to do that. But for all the in-person, we still wanted them to feel some connection to folks in real life. So we decided that in order to bring people in, we would bring some food. Food always does that. So we have a drive-through section where they would come into the pole yard, drive up to where we had. The first one was a horse theme. She liked horses a lot. So we had some hay bales there with some barbecue and stuff that I had done. And they would choose from the menu. We would put the food in the box, put it on the hay bale. They would drive up, pull that from the hay bale and and go on their way to get in line. Still in their car, right. They’re all still in the car the whole time. They went over to where the retiree was. They’re all blocked off there with some more hay bales this time around. And they could speak socially distance, safe distance away to that retiree. And that we had a big spool there. They could put their gift or cards on. And then once they drove, somebody would come and pick it up for them. But it gave a chance for them to still have those meaningful conversations and goodbyes at a safe distance and enjoy some fun food. And we had lots of decorations and balloons and things. It was a really fun time. We had music going.
Andy Johns: And like you said, definitely thinking outside the normal: have a cake in the break room and everybody gather around. Can’t do that as much. That’s a really fun idea to do that.
Jonathan Farmer: Yeah. We actually left that Zoom feed going the whole time, so we put it up by the person so they could see them the whole time. So people who weren’t there to see some people who may have retired a couple of years ago and are coming back for this, they were able to still see them as well. We had a monitor up there and stuff, so that was good. The second theme was motorcycles. And so we had motorcycles there creating that barrier and had flags up and stuff. But it was good times.
Andy Johns: Very cool. Yeah, and I know that’s something that those folks work there are long time, and they deserve that kind of honor on the way out the door. So that’s great. Those are not the only virtual events that you have either been a part of or seen this year. Like everybody having to be creative and think outside the box. What are some of the other things that you’ve either been a part of or seen that has stood out to you that you thought were creative during this time when we’re not able to all be together?
Jonathan Farmer: Yeah, I think maybe the one that everybody has heard of that I think stands out as the most creative is a whole is the annual meeting that are a big deal. [The ones] where they had the drive up and meeting with the radio, kind of going old school. Tune into the radio and listen to the annual meeting, while the people are up there in a bucket for the presentation. I thought that was a really fun and creative way to do something. But annual meetings in general are sort of a tough thing to do. You’re trying to decide how to get people to want to be there in general. And what’s your purpose? Are you going to vote on things or not vote on things? How are you going to tally all those votes and take attendance and things? There’s a lot really to consider in that. And I know that people are going to place different importantance on different things. So really, I think with our annual meeting that we did, it was just getting that message out to folks that we’re still here. We’re still operating. We still have your best interests in mind. And we wanted that to be something that they could access, not just now if the meeting time didn’t work, but later. And so recording those things, having those accessible to people was something that we did.
Andy Johns: Last thing I had for you here, and I know early on earlier on in the conversation, you talked about the retirement parties going drive-through, being a little bit of a hard sell. What advice do you have for folks either at an electric co-op or an independent telco, somebody who’s thinking we’re not going to be able to have our events like we always have this year. We’re going to need to do something different, either internally or externally. What are some ideas or tips that you have, advice on what they can do if they’re in the same shoes you were a year ago?
Jonathan Farmer: Great question. I guess my advice would be sort of twofold. One, just embrace the change and begin with the end in mind. It is what it is. We fight it too much there, but you make the most of it. I think we’ve seen that a lot in this pandemic, that there are some benefits that come from having to do things a little bit differently. Beginning with that end in mind allows us to be able to maybe more closely focus what we do and expand on those reasons for doing what we’re doing. And thinking again about the consumer of what we’re putting out there, why are they going to come to what you’re doing? Why are they going to engage with it, whether they hope to get out of it? Obviously, there’s things we want them to get out of it. But maybe balancing those priorities will help boost your your engagement. It was a hard sell just to the people who were retiring. They were they were a little bit more cautious of perhaps electronics or technology. But really, it wasn’t a hard sell to get people to come to it for sure. Definitely, a lot of people were excited to do anything, to do something right. A lot of people are stuck in places. So they are excited for opportunities to engage in meaningful ways. So don’t be too afraid of thinking nobody’s going to want to show up. Just go big, I guess.
Andy Johns: And it’s always a good, like you were saying, a good adage. If you’re doing something, some kind of marketing event, ask yourself if you would go. Is there enough value that you would give up your Tuesday night or Wednesday lunch break or whatever to go do it? And if it’s worth it to you, then you’ve got to figure it would be worth it for other folks. So I think that’s a sound advice. And I appreciate you sharing some of those insights and being on. I’m sure we’ll have you on another one of these. But again, welcome to the team and thanks for taking the time to be on today.
Jonathan Farmer: Thanks Andy, it was a bunch of fun. Let’s do it again.
Andy Johns: He is Jonathan Farmer, the Director of Member Solutions for Pioneer Utility Resources. My name is Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.