Strategic Communications in the Association Sector

On November 6-8th, Ottawa will be hosting an innovative new conference on Communications for Associations where I’ll be presenting on the theme of change communications.

Summers Direct and Swansea Communications, the producers of the conference, have made an important contribution to the industry in pioneering this specialized event. It’s the first one of its kind that I’ve seen, and I think it addresses an important need to provide highly specialized content and community building for communications practitioners working in the association sector.

Having worked with many associations over the years, I observe that their communicators do tend to share a particular set of challenges:

A lack of clear North: In a private corporation, there is a natural gravitational pull toward the goal of generating revenue. It’s not difficult to determine “which way’s North” – just follow the money. Likewise, governments also have at least some clear sense of direction based on political goals. Associations, though, tend to struggle with layers of tension between the often competing objectives of various stakeholders. The Board, Committees, senior leaders, members, partners, clients and funders may have highly divergent views of what success looks like. While this often sets up fascinating discussions and debates it also makes communicating in a strategic and focused way particularly challenging.

Battle for mind share: Gone are the days when associations could rest on their laurels, confident in the security of virtually guaranteed recurring membership revenue streams. As Sarah Sladek explains in her sobering work The End of Membership As We Know It, no association can take its membership for granted. In a world where individuals can create a sense of community, connection and value instantly (and cheaply) through the internet, industry and professional associations face an unprecedented battle for mind share.

Barriers to planning: Associations are notoriously poor at long-term planning. This is explained by the often precarious nature of their membership revenue, which can be difficult to accurately project. The challenge is compounded by the cultural and operational consequences of having rotations in the President/Chair and Board roles, bringing with them yearly swings in opinion, direction and focus. Communicators working in associations find themselves in perpetual catch-up mode, and face significant challenges in establishing reputation and strong narratives as the winds around them change so frequently.

A relationship imperative: The ability to get along is an essential survival skill for communicators working in the association sector. Everything is done through relationships with colleagues, partners, funders, Board representatives and members. Navigating through conflict, cultivating a sense of shared purpose and having the drive to achieve a result are de rigeur for the association communicator.

Limited resources: Generally, associations have very limited communications budgets and small teams, often favouring investing more resources in the mission-critical area of membership marketing. Some of the most resourceful, creative communicators I know have honed their skills in the association sector, because it demands that we raise our game to offer truly high performance communication support.

I look forward to attending the Communications for Associations Conference and connecting with new and familiar warriors working in the trenches of association communications. For more resources on building capacity for strategic communications in the para-public and association sector, check out the University of Ottawa Institute for Strategic Communications & Change. 

Early bird pricing for the Conference ends the first week in September – sign up here!