While the worst of the pandemic may (hopefully!) be behind us, associations of all sizes still face multiple challenges. Broadly speaking, volunteer leaders and staff are confronting:
- Reputational threats based on their handling of social and political issues, from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies to actions of support of the Ukraine;
- Operational challenges to the traditional association business model, from the impact of the pandemic to the evolving expectations of members.
To meet this moment, many associations are evolving their marketing and content strategies to incorporate strategic communications elements to reshape their position in the marketplace and to enhance their reputation. Strategic communications focuses more broadly on an organization’s mission and reputation, without the goal of supporting a specific product or service. Strategic communications typically includes:
- Crisis preparedness and response
- Issues management
- Executive communications
- Media relations
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to strategic communications. Each organization is unique with its own history, reputation, and aspirations and Smithbucklin helps clients think through and anticipate issues that can have a significant impact on their operations and reputation.
Over the last 18 months, as associations, societies, and communities faced pressure to their business models and navigated sensitive issues, Smithbucklin provided counsel and instituted programs on a range of issues, including employment, social media controversies, political issues, diversity and equity matters, and leadership succession. On a functional level, we provided assistance with media relations, new approaches to advocacy, executive communications, and thought leadership.
Don’t wait for a crisis to arise; associations should consider strategic communications as a preparedness tool, rather than simply in response to a particular event. Oftentimes, the very process of thinking through those issues – and then taking steps in advance to reach key stakeholders – improves the organization’s position.
If you are considering whether your organization should engage in strategic communications as part of organizational preparedness or whether to just wait and see what happens, please consider the following simple analogy.
Imagine you were going on a business to a faraway city next week and you could choose one of two approaches. On one hand, you could set up meetings beforehand, decide whether to bring a colleague, prepare the appropriate materials, even choose the right clothes.
On the other hand, you could do none of that planning and just fly into the city, hoping to make some last-minute arrangements.
Certainly the better course would be to undertake the planning before the trip.
The same principle of preparedness applies to stewardship of an organization – though the process is more complex and the results more important than any single business trip.
A recent example for associations relates to whether, when, and how they should speak out on political and social issues (e.g., George Floyd; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; local legislation in the U.S.). We recommend that clients prepare for these potential issues by addressing a series of questions about their own purpose and history, rather than just simply trying to respond in the moment after they’ve occurred. Organizations can ask:
- Is the issue connected to your mission?
- Are you also taking organizational action or encouraging members to take action?
- Will your membership/stakeholders support your approach?
- Is your approach consistent with your actions/reputation as an organization?
- Most broadly, is it a moral issue of such consequence that you feel required to speak out?
The answers to these questions and, just as importantly, the discussion around these questions, can help organizations make better decisions when confronted with challenging issues. After all, organizations are on important business trips, all the time.