I was surprised recently when, during a meeting with a state consumer protection chief, he remarked that his department receives fewer complaints about companies represented by strong state trade associations. He said he found that those industries with strong state level associations will work proactively with his department to resolve issues before they ever get to an enforcement effort.
The next day, in another meeting in a different state, an Attorney Generalalso mentioned state trade associations without any prompting. In this meeting as well, the Attorney General talked generically about how much better industries seem to be that have state trade associations that work proactively with that Attorney General’s office to find out what issues are percolating and take steps to keep them from becoming a concern to the Consumer Protection unit of the office.
These two unsolicited comments on successive days in two different states highlighted a sometimes overlooked, but very important, component of a successful state government relations program: a network of strong state trade associations. A good state trade association is one of the most valuable allies any state government relations program can have in a state.
A solid state trade association can provide you and your company with support in a number of areas:
- Solid in-state relationships. A good association will have developed good relationships with elected officials in their states.
- Effective industry advocacy. They know the industry issues and elected officials will look to them to describe potential impacts of policy proposals.
- Broad industry representation. By representing both large and small members of your industry, they can speak about the impacts a policy could have on the entire industry rather than allowing policy makers to attack a particular company (yours?) that may not be popular in their state.
- Local connection. By representing both large national companies as well as smaller home grown companies, the association can put that local face on your industry to make it easier for elected officials to see your company as part of the community, rather than an out of state company.
- Specific company assistance. With their relationships with tax or regulatory agencies and their intimate knowledge of your industry, they can help you clear up an issue or quickly get to the root of a disagreement between your company and an agency. If it is the latter, they can help you get to those root issues, so you can then step in to represent your company and build on what they have accomplished.
These state associations often provide benefits that are very valuable to smaller members who may operate only in one state or even one location. These are important functions of trade associations, but I am focusing this discussion on the benefits to companies with a large national presence.
Some GR professionals may believe that Groups meetings can be a substitute for state association membership. I would completely disagree. The points above outline some of the key benefits of a state trade association, but the Groups meetings are just as important. Relationships developed at those meetings are necessary to help brand your individual company in the eyes of legislative leaders and executive branch officials from around the country and there is no more efficient way to do that than at Groups meetings—and the state association can even help you at those meetings.
When you meet an elected official at a Groups meeting, you can immediately create a local connection by mentioning your membership (and active participation) in your state association. The elected official may very well know the staff of the trade association and may recall an issue on which she/he was lobbied by that staff. This can help you pivot to an issue discussion where the official will continue to connect you to that in-state association.
Even with a strong state association and active Groups participation, there will still be times when you need to retain a lobbyist for your company. Either when an issue is big enough that your trade association needs some additional firepower, or when there may be conflicting views among association members that preclude them from taking an active role on one side or the other. That is the nature of a trade association and don’t forget that you will need them for other issues in the future.
If you have already joined your state associations, have you evaluated them recently? The list of services above is a good place to start, but here are a few things to ask about them:
- What kind of relationships do they have with elected officials?
- Do elected officials see the association as the “go to” place for information about your industry?
- Can staff effectively explain your industry issues to those officials?
- Does the association have a broad membership from your industry or does it rely on a few large members to keep it running?
- Does it keep members updated about its activities on behalf of its members?
- Does it reach out for advice on how to respond to particular issues?
Now ask yourself this question:
- Are you and your industry peers providing the association with the resources necessary to accomplish those goals?
I ask because as social media and other forms of communication have made it much easier for advocacy organizations to raise money and mobilize their grassroots on issues that might harm your industry, many trade associations have seen their membership or dues decline. There are reasons for this, but they need to be addressed. Companies do merge and they don’t expect to continue paying both sets of dues. Our budgets get cut, and that may force dues reductions or even drops in association memberships.
While those cuts are sometimes unavoidable, they can’t go on forever. At some point, a state association is going to start becoming less effective because they simply don’t have the resources to maintain relationships, retain good staff and remain a well recognized force in their state. If that happens, it can take years and years and a lot of money to rebuild an industry’s reputation.
So, as you are putting together your budgets for 2013, make sure you become an advocate for your trade associations when it comes to your budget because they can be one of your most effective advocates in the states. I would urge you to take a look at the dues you have paid to your trade associations over the past five years and whether you have increased your presence in their respective states. If so, it may be time to start looking for ways to increase those dues. The NGOs opposing your industry have almost certainly increased their membership and made their presence in the state capitals known.
Of course, in some cases trade associations might not be strong and you may not believe they can offer you much help. Rather than simply defunding them, I would suggest that you work with your industry colleagues to develop a plan to strengthen that association. Doing so can be time consuming, but it is well worth the effort to ensure you have an effective trade association representing your interests in the states.