During 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.
Here 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.
Being 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.
Leading – 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.
Charitable – 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.
Non – 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.