This October, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) brought together communications professionals from all over the country for their Annual Association/Nonprofit Section Conference. The agenda covered a timely theme of “Communicating with Purpose: Navigating Change and Making Waves.”
This focus is relevant to recent findings from our 2019 Economic Impact on Associations Study that emphasized association optimism in uncertain times, juxtaposed with the jolting unpredictability of the economic environment. Surveyed association executives had attributed additional skepticism to competitors or disruptive threats and lack of revenue diversification.
With this in mind, I joined PRSA’s audience to share some tips in line with their overarching theme. Together, we discussed potential disruptors and some solutions that associations can mirror to remain steady during times of disarray.
Chaos ≠ Crisis
Sources of chaos span across internal and external factors. From board transitions and staff departures to rebranding and economic shifts, there are a wide array of disruptions that can shift the focus of your association’s communications and send you into a reactive state.
But despite its ability to rattle our routines, chaos doesn’t always have to mean crisis. Following five key philosophies, our clients have successfully maintained consistency in communications during unpredictable, and even tumultuous times:
- Embrace the chaos. Avoiding the possibility for chaos doesn’t prevent it. Accept that chaos is inevitable and be ready to address it.
- Know your mission and your message. Articulating your message and aligning your team’s day-to-day work with your organization’s mission means mission-critical work will stay prioritized during uncertain times.
- Develop cross-functional teams. When unexpected change occurs, you will likely need additional support. Engage others in the communications process before crisis hits and you will have their buy in and support when you need it most.
- Engage your volunteer leadership. During transformational times, your volunteers will have to talk about it. Equip them with tools to carry the right message and align their talking points with the organization’s.
- Know when to ask for help. Sometimes we can’t do it all. Whether it’s leaning on fellow staff members, volunteers or a third party, make sure you have a continuity plan in place to support you when chaos shifts your focus.
To illustrate the impact of these areas, we took a closer look at specific examples from two of my clients at McKinley.
A case study in cross-functionality
Fostering collaboration between teams is vital to successful marketing and communications for one of our biggest clients. This global scientific society has been able to maintain consistent communications despite staff departures, shifting organizational priorities and changes in the industry.
A team with a representative from each department ensures a shared understanding of upcoming communications priorities, generates new and fresh ideas and allows individuals to ask for help when needed. They continually ensure buy-in across departments, align messaging with member needs, and make sure that cross-functional teams are in place to react when priorities change rapidly.
A case study in engaging support to stay on mission and on message
Another one of our clients, an individual membership organization in the health care space, utilized research and member insights to shape their plan during a period of organizational change. This method enabled them to reinforce their brand messaging; develop plans for continuity; and engage volunteer leadership to ensure reliability and consistency of messaging.
During an overhaul of their previous branding, this association engaged staff, volunteers and stakeholders ensuring they were in lockstep while rolling out a new brand. This resulted in a refreshed presence aligned with their mission, as well as affirmation of the value of input from their key supporters. Without engaging members and stakeholders, the rebrand rollout could have led to uncertainty, but instead they emerged with the buy-in, approval and trust of their base.
Navigating starts now
At the end of my session, I welcomed discussions around what teams can stop doing; what they can start doing; who they can engage for more support; and, ultimately, what first step they should take.
Together, the audience shared mutual challenges and ideas for areas to invest, all with the goal of aligning with the philosophies highlighted above. From shifting board/staff dynamics and changing internal priorities to managing staff time and creating firm processes for unexpected circumstances, attendees shared a lot of common ground.
While it is impossible to immune your association against the impact of change, you can absolutely be prepared to communicate effectively when chaos hits.
Your mission is the foundation of your work. Ensure your team is prepared to continue advancing it through times of uncertainty by connecting with a McKinley consultant.