In our content series “The Now Normal,” Allison+Partners turns to leading professionals in their fields to unpack the state of communications today and where it needs to go tomorrow. Today, we speak with BSA | The Software Alliance Senior Director of Communications Anna Hughes about the unique now normal for industry associations. BSA | The Software Alliance represents members of the enterprise software industry.
How does communications help trade associations achieve their mission?
Trade associations speak as the voice of an industry, and the communications function plays a large part in bringing people together and getting the message out. While many individual member companies may be better known than an industry association, we can elevate both the industry as a whole and smaller members that lack a large platform. In addition, trade association communications can drive cross-industry collaboration on issues of mutual importance.
What is the secret to getting internal buy-in and support for the communications function with trade association leadership?
Success leads to more success, but you must back up that success with data. In the association world, most visibility is seen positively, and the communications function is valued as it helps support policy advocacy. I would definitely encourage an emphasis on the basics: build trust with colleagues and spokespeople, present good ideas, be responsive, show up when you say you will, follow through, and be open and honest. Importantly, while good leadership trusts communications, you should acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them to build trust and support. Nobody likes to be the guinea pig, so it is critical to show how an idea was successful in the past. Have the intelligence and humility to not suggest things just to suggest things!
What communications functions are most valued by trade association leadership and why?
Press coverage hands down. Visibility for the association, its leaders and our member companies is still the most valued communications function. Events are also very much valued for their ability to help us connect with new and existing stakeholders. Finally, strong relationships with communications teams at member companies are a critically important role for association communications.
What is uniquely difficult about doing communications for a trade association?
Communications for a trade association requires balancing many different stakeholder voices as well as the visibility of the association with its members. We often take on the tough questions that members would prefer not to take on and speak for our members on issues that are easier to field as an industry-wide association. Without the brand names of our members, it is more of an uphill climb with reporters until we have invested in building those relationships.
What do you find the most gratifying aspect of trade association communications?
Working with lots of different communications professionals at member companies and PR firms that provide understanding and support. And although travel is no longer a part of my job due to the pandemic, I enjoy working with my colleagues around the world--virtually. BSA works on issues that affect just about everyone, like privacy, emerging tech, and cybersecurity; I learn a lot just from sitting in on interviews and hearing my colleagues say smart things!
What do you think businesses can learn from trade associations about communications?
Compromise, balance and listening to all voices – skills that are honed in the association world. The board of directors brings strong accountability, and communications professionals learn the importance of reporting directly to the board in a way that shows successes and provides a look ahead.
Trade associations are uniquely positioned to address industry-wide perceptions. What is the key to doing that well and what are some potential pitfalls to be avoided?
Education of the press and policymakers is our differentiation. As we educate, we must think about what our audiences want and need. For example, does a reporter need a quick quote or an in-depth explanation of a policy matter? We work hard to be as responsive as possible and stay focused on topics that we can speak intelligently about. If we do, we will slowly and steadily build the perception that we hope to see of our industry. Not being responsive, not being aware of what is being written and said about our industry, and not understanding different perspectives pose the greatest risks for us when addressing industry-wide perceptions.
Many trade associations address policymaker audiences, and policymakers can heavily influence perceptions about an industry given their platforms and influence. If an industry comes under public criticism from policymakers, should industries keep their heads down until the storm passes or should they come out swinging to shape the narrative? How do you keep members happy when an industry is under fire?
We want to be problem solvers, so we do not trash ideas. We are never overly negative, and you will not see us come out swinging. We try to keep to the middle ground and be part of the solution. Differentiation is important for us, and our members want to see that we are trying to differentiate. As a result, we are willing to be on the front lines and take media interviews. Keeping your head down until the storm passes is not a good approach because the stories are going to happen anyway. If necessary, we will go off-the-record to maintain good reporter relationships and still have an impact.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way associations like yours do communications, and what further impacts on association communications do you anticipate in 2021?
The biggest thing is the shift to virtual, whether events, interviews, or editorial board meetings. Face time has gone up, not down, as video calls have replaced audio calls with reporters. We will all get better at being virtual and better at putting on events. But we will need to address “Zoom fatigue,” when to use video and when not to use it, how to build virtual events that stand out, and how to measure their value. Because our members are not able to travel during this time, they rely more on associations to provide a local presence in government capitals around the world.
What can an outside communications partner bring to a trade association and what do you do you look for in a partner?
An in-house communications team can find itself in a bit of a vacuum, and an outside communications partner should challenge us to think differently. We do not want to be in a sector bubble so bringing perspectives from other industries is valuable. I want a partner team with a range of levels and backgrounds, different personalities, and different ideas, coming from different places. We count on outside partners to bring different specializations and expertise and provide global support. If needed, the partner should be able to help me run the communications function in another geography.
On a personal note, why have you chosen a career in association communications and why do you stay in it?
I love that in an association, we all have the same mission and move forward together. As a communications professional, I get to work with incredibly dedicated, smart people on a range of issues that change with the times. In the end, I am selling really good ideas.
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Marcel Goldstein is an EVP in Allison+Partners corporate practice.