By: Jamie Rismiller
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 Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® Director of Communications Riya V. Anandwala about the unique Now Normal for industry associations. CTA represents the $422 billion U.S. consumer technology industry and is the owner and producer of CES.
What value does comms bring to the association and its members? Has that changed during COVID-19?
Every association has a unique overarching mission. But for the most part, associations aim to grow the industry and support their members. Communications plays a central role in this. Our work brings visibility and opportunities to our members. And our storytelling champions the many ways the technology industry has a positive impact on society – from creating jobs to improving quality of life. This has been especially true during COVID-19, as we work to underscore the role of tech in helping consumers and businesses alike bring solutions to the pandemic.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way associations like yours do communications, and what impacts do you anticipate in 2021?
The biggest challenge has been to pivot with the ever-changing environment.
Consumer demands have changed rapidly. We’ve seen this in our research, which has shown significant variations in consumer behavior patterns each month that our members need to keep pace with. Nearly 80% of CTA’s members are small businesses. The challenges that small businesses face are very different from those of large companies, and small businesses don’t always have the resources to navigate such a fast-changing environment. Our communications team became an essential source of information for our members around what was changing and how to best pivot in light of new developments.
For example, we have built three dedicated web pages with resources in the areas of research, digital health, and federal and state policies, which have changed quickly. Stakeholder communications came to life during this crisis in a deeply meaningful way.
We also focused on providing the media with relevant CTA research and on ensuring what we offered to the press was timely and relevant with the changing news cycles. We had to be incredibly nimble and cognizant of the overarching news landscape. Part of this included making sure the media knew about industry efforts CTA spearheaded, such as an initiative to bring together health tech leaders to determine how to best use technology to respond to COVID-19 and how the U.S. could be better prepared for future pandemics.
This has certainly been a difficult time for all but has provided some really great learning experiences as well. We learned we need to be more flexible, nimble and fast-moving. These have always been axioms of the communications field, but the pandemic has taken them to a new level of importance that will stick as we move forward.
I also think that communications teams have had to evolve how they communicate internally, and these changes are here to stay. Within CTA specifically, we have a complex marketing and communications department. More than ever, we over-communicate. We talk all the time, do a ton of check-ins and use all our tools to collaborate in a timely way.
Do you have any examples of pivots you’ve had to make in your communications program and what worked well?
Rather than launching research according to the schedule we had planned to put forth this year, we instead prioritized research we saw our members – and the public – really needed at the time. We started paying even more attention to what the media talked about and asked, what information would be helpful right now? What can we uniquely provide?
We also doubled-down on trade publications during the pandemic. I can’t emphasize enough the value of trade outlets. I was a trade reporter in India and recognize the crucial role these outlets play in reaching the audience for which your information is the most relevant. At a time when the media landscape is crowded and focused on news of the day, trades are often the best channel for reaching a highly engaged, targeted audience.
What predictions do you have about how communications will evolve during the upcoming phases of this global crisis?
The communications function will become even more integrated with marketing and business strategy. When the pandemic hit, we put together a marketing and communications guide with recommendations on how members could reimagine their messaging, reposition their value proposition, listen to their customers and evolve their brands. These recommendations wove together business strategy with marketing and communications and are exemplary of how organizations need to integrate functions as the norm moving forward.
I also think communications teams will increasingly need to position themselves with the media as trusted sources of data and facts, which are more important than ever in a world rife with disinformation.
Finally, I feel very strongly about the need for the communications function – and media relations in particular – to become more targeted in execution. It’s an extremely competitive media market with a lot of noise. We talk to reporters frequently, and it’s apparent they have limited bandwidth. We need to be sure what we pitch to media is relevant and that their audience will genuinely care. Rather than trying to approach media with all initiatives that might have potential, pick what’s most important, define goals and focus on that effort. This way, we use our – and their – time wisely.
Are there any key takeaways you’ve experienced thus far through the pandemic that other communicators can learn from? Is there one key thing you think other communicators should do now?
Situations like the pandemic bring you a little closer to the business operations of your organization and to how societal trends impact the bottom line of the business. Communications professionals should take these opportunities to align with the changing goals of the business more deeply. Communicators hail from a wide variety of backgrounds – journalism, technology, law, you name it – and bring a unique perspective to how developments may be perceived externally. The pandemic has underscored why we need to have a seat at the table when business decisions get made.
What is the secret to getting internal buy-in and support for the communications function with trade association leadership?
Ultimately, communications strategies must be deeply aligned with the organization’s business objectives. It’s easier to get leadership on board if you justify your ideas with strategic rationale around why they are necessary for the goals of the business – and elevate beyond communications goals, like impressions or clips.
For example, we recently launched an initiative aimed at improving health equity through technology and brought together experts from the healthcare sector and our member companies to create a set of recommendations. From a communications perspective, the initiative helped to build CTA’s position as a thought leader at the intersection of digital health and diversity and inclusion. But publicizing the initiative also advanced CTA’s broader business goal of driving membership interest and member engagement. Our efforts generated in-bound partnership and membership inquiries.
Back when I made the switch from journalism to PR, there was a lot of conversation about how to show ROI in communications. While it’s still harder for PR to show quantifiable business results the way marketing and sales can, there’s no reason we can’t change the way we demonstrate the value of communications by mapping to business objectives.
What is uniquely difficult about doing communications for a trade association?
With a trade association of CTA’s size, you’re dealing with many different stakeholders. So, you have to be ready to switch from one audience to another on any given day in a very short timeframe. I find myself needing to shift my brain from AR/VR to 5G in healthcare, to holiday trends and more, over the course of a single day. For me, that’s an exciting challenge.
What do you find the most gratifying aspect of trade association communications?
It comes down to two things: the relationships you build within and outside the association and the range of topics we work on.
CTA has a broad scope with many different departments and a very collaborative culture. There is a huge emphasis from leadership on working collaboratively toward common goals. Relationships internally and with our members are paramount to the work we do.
I also really enjoy the range of topics we work on. We advocate for the technology industry. And if you look around, it’s hard to say these days what makes a company a tech company. From healthcare to hardware, to software, to transportation – I’m never bored. The industry is fast-moving, so we are always on the cusp of something new and exciting.
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? How do you keep members happy when the industry is under fire?
Whenever the industry goes through anything complex or challenging, the first thing to do is stop and listen to your members to see where they stand. What do they support, and what do they oppose? Then, you need to reconcile that with your principles as a trade association. Some issues have more industry unity than others. At the end of the day, we need to square our members’ perspectives with the association’s principles.
On a personal note, why have you chosen a career in association communications and why do you stay in it?
The variety is what makes this job so exciting. I was a reporter earlier in my career. And when you’re a journalist, variety is part of the deal – you cover something new every day. Similarly, at CTA, I never get bored. I’m always working on something different. Also, working in communications for CTA gives me the opportunity to tell stories about things that matter. That has been the theme throughout my career. I don’t want to just do what the job calls for, I want to do work that is mission-driven. Telling stories that span healthcare, 5G, diversity and inclusion and so much more gives me the opportunity to make a difference.