What’s the point of trade associations?

imagesDuring the course of my career in media I have been involved in the work of a variety of trade associations – as an attendee at events, speaker, committee and board member.

Generally my experiences have been positive ones and I have learned a lot and made some great connections as a result of my participation. However, I am constantly amazed at how old fashioned a lot of them are and also, how resistant they are to change.

This week I saw the news about the Chief Executive of the PPA leaving the trade body with immediate effect. I have heard of similar travails at ABM in the US. The large media trade associations are clearly struggling so it got me thinking about what their role should be and how they can grow in the future.

imagesHere are some of the key pillars that I believe media trade associations should be built around:

Championing the industry – the media industry is a huge sector, employing hundreds of thousands of people and contributing greatly to the wider economy. However, because it is so diverse it is often misunderstood and disjointed. A dominant trade association should define the scope of the industry, quantify and publicise its importance.

Lobbying – directly linked to ‘championing’ is the role of a trade association to lobby governments, commercial suppliers and regulatory bodies on behalf of its members. An industry that has no strong central voice is weaker and vulnerable to ill thought out pieces of legislation.

imagesBeing both welcoming and adaptable – I have dealt with some trade associations that feel as though they only cater for a section of the industry. Either through its membership dues structure, key activities, or the make up of the board they can sometimes feel only relevant to a narrow group of companies, or organisations of a certain size. This is a recipe for extinction. You must welcome the startups, the new business models, the multi-platform nature of the businesses you serve and not stick to the entrenched way of doing things.

Educating – at the heart of a successful association should be a learning programme. Setting best practice standards; training new entrants; providing formal qualifications; organising seminars and conferences; recognising excellence through awards etc.

imagesLeading – during a period of rapid structural change I look to a media association to be open and honest about what is happening. I’d like it to be able to act bravely, to be able to highlight the commercial challenges faced and not put out misleading statistics (sorry Tim) to paper over the cracks. I’d also like it to be at the forefront of experimenting with new technology – social networks, online video, personalisation etc.

Conversational – a large part of the value I have received from participation in trade associations has been nothing to do with committees or formal events. Instead it has come from talking to other people who work in the same industry that I do. Some of these are competitors but often they are not. The abiding principle should be that by being open you get more back than you give. An association that encourages conversation and sharing ahead of corporate posturing will always do well.

imagesCharitable – all industries go through periods of upturn and downturn. During the boom times associations should build up reserves and they should not be scared about drawing down these assets in harder times to support bursaries, fellowships and grants. At the recent SIPA conference in Washington regular attendees who were out of work or whose companies were in financial difficulty could apply for their registration fees to be waived. If they were successful there was an implicit understanding that they would support the association in other ways in the future. This has to be a win/win.

Career enhancing – throughout my career I can point to two jobs I have directly got as a result of contacts made through industry associations. At various stages I have heard about members having problems with poaching of staff as a result of contacts made at associations but let’s face it, there are now so many ways to contact employees at competitors. If they’re open to being wooed there’s very little you can do about it. An efficient recruitment site and introduction service should be at the heart of a trade association’s services.

imagesNon – bureaucratic – I was recently involved in a process to review the articles of association for a media trade body. It was enough to make your eyes bleed. I have also sat in committee meetings where there were so many proposers, seconders, yays and nays that I felt I should be wearing a frocked coat and wig. While I understand the need for rules – especially where member dues are involved – surely we can cut out a lot of this bull? Associations should be run like a modern business, with a flat hierarchy and a commitment not to waste your members time or money.

Open & visible – basic marketing here but I bet many of the readers of this blog have never heard of some of the associations I’ve linked to here (logos are clickable). Even if you have heard of them do you really understand the difference between them and the constituent communities they serve? Trade bodies need to make sure they do a much better job of marketing to both members and non-members.

One of the major problems I see is that trade associations are often run like sub-standard media companies. We accept a lot of the quirks because they regularly rely on volunteers or part-time staff. But for people working in the media and communications industry that’s not good enough. Trade associations have a huge role to play in the evolution and development of our industry. Their strength benefits us all.

Comments welcome.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “What’s the point of trade associations?

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for What’s the point of trade associations? « Rory Brown [rorybrown.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  2. The PPA made some promising new recruits but has obviously found it tough to drive itself and the industry forward. After the magazine congress in London that’s a real shame. Think it’s a good time for the community to do something itself.

  3. Great article Rory, an additional point and a key part of a trade association’s job is to be recognised by government and they need to have clout to be heard here. I had an interesting lunch with Helen Alexander from the CBI last week with a number of heads of media/creative businesses, where we all agreed there was a need to convey the importance of the economic and social contribution of the creative sector to the UK GDP (8.2%) to government and also the lobbying priorities on IP generally, an issue that effects all content businesses.
    What is certain though is that a downturn brings into focus the value we get from our trade associations and unless we see how that value accrues they wont be getting our hard earned contribution. The PPA is certainly on notice and I look forward to some positive action from them.

    Re your misleading stats comment! Look at the dates; The sector was growing like topsy. I remember well trying to convince you and a number of colleagues at Incisive Media in May 2008 we were likely to face a significantly more difficult economic backdrop.

  4. Pingback: Time for people in the industry to do so… « BusinessMedia.co.uk

  5. Rory Brown

    Jonathan – as I said in the piece I think that strong trade associations benefit us all. However, media professionals can clearly self-organise much more easily these days & fulfill some of the association’s traditional roles. All the more of a challenge to groups like the PPA if they are to remain relevant.

    Tim – Thanks. I wasn’t proposing a statistical debate and know that you were warning of a deep recession well before many of your peers.

    I would just point to the current PPA site which values the magazine and business media industry in the UK at £6bn. If the PPA is producing reports it needs to maintain some form of consistency over the numbers.

  6. Louise White

    I have certainly had some very positive experiences through SIPA, PPA, AOP and the IDM. However, I tend to find that the bigger the organisation the more addicted they are to committees.

    For an industry that is changing as rapidly and fundamentally as media, this clunky structure can be very frustrating – I once had to have a committee meeting to decide if we should have a lunch with another committee! Just do it already.

    That said, I have met some incredibly talented and interesting people through my involvement in trade associations and have learned a lot from them. There is a lot to be said for sharing with your peers and competitors to understand how our businesses are changing. If nothing else, there is a huge benefit in knowing that the challenges we face go across the industry. It’s incredibly helpful in validating decisions and yes, nicking other people’s ideas!

    I am a great believer in openness and sharing of information – you get out what you put in.

  7. Rory Brown

    Louise – thanks for your comments. Media associations face many of the same challenges as the companies they serve. Time for a fresh approach all round!

  8. privatefraser

    Rather than threaping about stats, it might have been nice for Tim Weller – a PPA board member – to let us know why Johnathan Shephard got the bullet.
    What’s the story Tim, what vision does the PPA have that Johnathan didn’t share?

  9. And another thing ..

    Trade associations such as the PPA must be very careful not to ignore and alienate smaller members by continually making the bulk of their annual awards to the biggest media companies.

    The stats on this are embarrassing. Of course it’s a political / money thing. But then the Association are left vulnerable and weakened when lobbying etc.

    The PPA can learn a lot from the Associations that embrace smaller publishers that share information such as SIPA.

  10. Rory Brown

    Peter – thanks for dropping by.
    I couldn’t agree more. One of the points I was trying to make was that associations need to be inclusive at all levels of their industry.
    Something the PPA has always failed to do.

  11. Pingback: Is the PPA now the Print Publishers Association? « Rory Brown

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