The demand for broadband was there, but Joe Wheeler EMC (Trinity, Alabama) needed approval from its membership to enter the business. In this episode, Director of Communications Michael Cornelison talks about the actions his electric cooperative took to inform members and hold an election to change the company bylaws.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: How are EMCs communicating about broadband to their members? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns, and I’m joined today by Michael Cornelison, the director of communications for Joe Wheeler EMC in North Alabama. Michael, thanks for joining me.
Michael Cornelison: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Andy Johns: Now, we are here, as some of the other episodes that we’ve recorded, we are at the TVPPA User Utility CX Conference. And we’ve had some great folks come by the WordSouth booth here. And Michael is one of the folks we knew before we got here. We just had a good conversation with Michael yesterday about the process that Joe Wheeler went through in order to communicate the future and plans and kind of get the membership vote about getting into the broadband business. Michael, if you don’t mind, just kind of overview for us, what the last, I don’t know, six or nine months have been like for you guys over there?
Michael Cornelison: Sure. So, you know, being an electric cooperative, obviously owned by our members, one of the unique things that we had to deal with is the fact that our members had to approve any kind of business that was not electric related, which includes broadband Internet. So over the last few months, we’ve had to set up public meetings — which was one of the requirements was for us — to let people ask questions and talk to them about it. And then they had to vote. And it’s, you know, the basic vote was set up in the same manner as our board elections. We had to meet a quorum. And then, of course, fifty plus one had to approve it, 50 percent plus one. So that’s the process we had to undertake over the past few months. We had our feasibility plans done, and we had our our business plan set and some general ideas of where we wanted to go and where we wanted to take it. But we didn’t have a product yet. We had to wait for the vote before we had an actual product.
Andy Johns: And that’s a little unique. I mean, there are a lot of electrics around the country kind of looking into this, but I don’t know that a lot of folks have that same requirement. I mean, maybe you’re not unique, but there are some folks who don’t have those hurdles. You guys had some higher hurdles to get over, sounds like.
Michael Cornelison: Yes, and we don’t necessarily see them as hurdles. And we think it’s actually kind of a good thing. We’re not completely unique. We have heard of a few cooperatives across the nation who have had to do the same thing. But we kind of like that it — you know, especially with the results we got — it kind of puts us on almost a stronger standing, and lets us know that this is really something our membership wants. It puts us in contact with our members, getting direct questions from our members, which is always a good thing.
Andy Johns: Well, let’s get into kind of a spoiler alert here. Let’s talk about those results, and then we’ll work back on how you got there. But let’s go ahead and get into to what the verdict was when it came time for everybody to vote.
Michael Cornelison: Sure. We’re an electric cooperative. We have roughly 35000 residential members. And at our annual meetings, we usually average around 3000 or 4000 votes. Those are both mail-in ballots and and walk-in ballots. For this vote, we ended up with 7200 votes.
Andy Johns: That’s a fantastic number.
Michael Cornelison: Yeah, that’s about 21% of our membership, which was a great result. You know, of course, we would love to get 100%. But, the the end results were about 94% approval.
Andy Johns: Wow. That’s a pretty strong statement there.
Michael Cornelison: Yes. And we thought so, too. I mean, it really kind of lets us know that this is something that our membership wants, and they want it now. And, you know, they want us to move forward with this project.
Andy Johns: So that’s what the results were. Let’s go back and talk about how you got there, because you had to hold a series of meetings. Was it one in every county, or how did you tell us about the meetings? You guys had to kind of inform the membership about that.
Michael Cornelison: Sure. So we cover two counties in north Alabama, Morgan and Lawrence counties. And the requirements in our bylaws are that we hold three public meetings. But to be sure that all of our members had the opportunity to come out — which we do cover a pretty large geographical area — we actually held six meetings. We held them at high schools and in the area people were familiar with. They knew where it was, and they went pretty well.
Andy Johns: Talk me through those meetings. So you get folks to show up. I know that at annual meetings folks will do the barbecues and the music, whatever, to try to get a quorum. But at these meetings, kind of talk me through what’s on the agenda for those.
Michael Cornelison: So these meetings were set up. You know, we didn’t do it annual meeting style. We didn’t offer prizes. We didn’t offer food. We just tried to keep them around an hour. We realized people were busy, and we did stream three of them. We wanted to give people as much access as they could. We wanted to hear from them, wanted them to ask questions. We encouraged them to ask questions. And we averaged, I think some of our meetings had around 50 or 60, but most of them were closer to 100 people. So it was a decent representation of the area.
Andy Johns: I would say so. You got to be happy when a hundred people show up. Now, real quick, you said that you guys streamed them. How did y’all do that? Was that Facebook live or…?
Michael Cornelison: Yeah, that’s right. We streamed them on Facebook live. We kept them on our Facebook page. We did a lot of promotion for these with Facebook and social media, but mostly Facebook on that side. We also promoted in newspapers. We did a little bit of radio advertising. We had some television stations cover it a little bit, you know, but we were competing against Huntsville.
Andy Johns: Sure. And when we were talking yesterday, the demographics or the age range of those meetings, I think you said, it kind of surprised you. But but it also kind of made sense.
Michael Cornelison: Yeah, the demographics. So in our first meeting, we kind of realized that the demographics were going to be different than what we had expected, I guess. And it was that they skewed a little older. But then it kind of made sense. Our meetings were held during the week at 6:30. You know, we have kids. We understand people were busy, and they were doing a lot of things. Plus, I tend to think that the younger group kind of already understood what we were doing and just wanted us to get along with it. We were also, I won’t say surprised, especially given our area, but the number of people being close to Huntsville… I think people were pretty savvy when it comes to this kind of thing. So we do have a lot of retired engineers and people who work in an aerospace kind of business. And so we got a lot of questions that were really good, and we appreciated that. You know, they started it. I’m glad we had our engineers with us.
Andy Johns: I bet. Huntsville is so close to NASA and everything there. And, you could literally have rocket scientists in the room with you.
Michael Cornelison: Yes, we actually did have a couple of meetings where we had rocket scientists asking questions, and they were good questions. And, you know, that kind of goes back to preparing for the meetings. We wanted to make sure we had someone there that could answer any kind of question. So we made sure we had engineers. We made sure that we had our CFO there to answer any financial questions. Of course, our CEO was there. And he kind of ran the meeting and spoke to everyone and answered the questions. So, you know, it’s all about having the right people in the room.
Andy Johns: I think that’s important, too. I mean, that’s something that folks may not have thought about. This may have been the kind of thing the CEO, the communications folks do, and then you don’t have the subject matter experts there. So I think that’s a good call. So we talked a little bit about those questions. Both for folks who were for it, folks who may not have been for it, and folks who are at least trying to understand, what were a lot of the questions and the feedback that you heard at these meetings?
Michael Cornelison: Well, honestly, most of the questions were “when’s it coming into my house?” But there were some people who were concerned about how we were paying for it. They were concerned that they may not want it, and they didn’t want to have to to pay for it. They didn’t want it to be a requirement. A lot of folks were under the impression that we were going to raise rates to pay for this. And so we were prepared for those, and we answered those questions. Of course, we’re not going to raise your rates. This is all going to be paid for by subscribers to the service. And you’re not going to be forced to take it. And once we kind of alleviated those concerns, I think people were a little more accepting, the ones who were skeptical.
Andy Johns: Sure. Sure. So then after you had the six meetings, what happened next for the voting? Because they weren’t voting at those meetings. Tell us a bit about how the vote was collected.
Michael Cornelison: So the meetings took place over September. The ballots went out in the first of October. And that was one of the purposes for the meetings also, to let them know that the vote is coming. Let them know what to look for. Give them sort of a heads up and kind of gauge what kind of attitude and what our members were thinking. So we sent ballots out, you know, postage return. And it’s the same format that we use for our annual meetings. We sent them out to all of our members. And then I pushed, you know, through social and the magazine and newspaper ads, the same ways. We tried to promote the meetings and tried to get the vote up. As you know, we wanted to make sure everyone had an opportunity to vote. We wanted to make sure everyone knew what they were voting for and to be looking for in the mail.
Andy Johns: Were you guys pretty confident when the votes were coming in that the membership was going to support broadband, or were you surprised it was 94%?
Michael Cornelison: I mean, we did run a survey in the magazine a year prior, and the results for that were almost the same. I think it was 89%, but that was kind of informal. And they didn’t really know what the details were. We were just trying to gauge, you know, should we move forward with this? So we had an idea. We didn’t have a lot of push-back on it. We had some people that were a little concerned about, if they were going to pay for it, how it was going to be paid for. But once we talked about that, most of those people kind of came around and said, “OK, well, I’ll vote for that.” So I don’t want to say we were expecting 94%, but we had an idea that it would probably pass. We were happy to see it pass by as much as it did.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. That puts you guys in a very strong position when you get 94%. You know, if it was like 51-52%, it might be a whole different conversation we’re having here. One more thing about the meetings. When you guys were having those, were you coming in as presenting it as just here are the facts and you’re impartial, go either way? Or are you guys coming in and really advocating to get into broadband?
Michael Cornelison: Well, we started out talking about it in the magazine before the meetings, we kind of took an impartial view, like this is something that we want to present to you. But by the time we got to the meetings, you know, we had had enough. We’d invested enough in time and just with all the research, we decided it was time that we really needed to start advocating for this. This is something that we didn’t want our members to think that we didn’t care either way. Obviously, it’s something we felt was very important. And we wanted our members to know that this is something we thought that we should move forward with. So we went at our meetings with that attitude. We didn’t tell people how to vote, but we did make sure that they knew that our stance was it was something that we thought would be beneficial to our members.
Andy Johns: So the vote comes in as 94% in favor of it. What happened next? And then where are you going? Because that’s kind of catches up, I mean, that happened on the 1st of November, and we’re here just a few days later. So what? You know what happened then, and then what’s happening right now for you guys?
Michael Cornelison: Well, we had our vote. We sent out our press releases, and we celebrated a little bit. And now, the real work starts. You know, one of the things we’ve always kind of said is once this passes — and assuming it would pass — is we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do it right. We’re gonna to do it right the first time. And so now is when the real planning begins — the engineering, getting ready, making sure we have everything in order so that we can fulfill all the promises that we made. And I think we’re in pretty good shape to do that.
Andy Johns: Last thing I had for you. We talked yesterday, and there’s some things that you wish you had known then that you know now. But what’s some advice — if there’s somebody who is sitting on the fence and maybe right where you guys were a few months ago, and they’re going need to talk to their membership and whether they need to get a vote or whether they just need to communicate about this with them — what’s some advice? What’s some things you learned, some wisdom you picked up along the way, that you can pass on to them?
Michael Cornelison: Well, one of the things I would say is, be sure that everyone is involved as early as possible.
Andy Johns: Everyone internally or externally?
Michael Cornelison: Yes, internally. You want to make sure that it’s not just the engineers and the financial people talking. If communications is going to be involved, make sure they’re involved. Make sure everyone’s up to speed and do as much research as you can, because you’re going to get questions. And, you know, when this started off, I knew what fiber optics was. I had a general idea of how it worked, but there was still a little bit of voodoo in there somewhere. And so we did get questions about that. And so I’m glad we all came together and did all the research we could to be able to somewhat answer the questions that were being asked.
Another thing I would advise is, because it is kind of technical and there is a little bit of mystery involved, be sure you’re speaking to a level that everyone understands. One interesting thing we did is, before we had our meetings, we did a dry run with all of our employees. And our employees are pretty good representation of our membership. They are members, and they live in the area and their families in the area. So we let them ask questions. And not only do they ask questions that the general public would ask, but they also asked questions about internal stuff. And it was things that we needed to hear and needed to consider also. So that was a good, good way to get started.
Andy Johns: Definitely,the more answers you have before the questions come, then you’re starting off ahead. Well Michael, I’m glad. I appreciate it. That’s exciting news for you guys. And like you said, you know, to have 94%, that certainly puts you guys in a much stronger position than if it had been a little more split and controversial. So thank you for sharing those insights and for joining me on the podcast today.
Michael Cornelison: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Andy Johns: He is Michael Cornelison. He is the director of communications at Joe Wheeler EMC in North Alabama. I’m Andy Johns with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.