Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision makers. This column is written by Robert Hay Jr., an account executive with PAI Management.
This past week, the American Medical Association (AMA) made a controversial decision. In light of the multiple instances of gun violence in Orlando alone, the AMA’s House of Delegates passed a resolution calling gun violence a “public health problem” and added the issue to their lobbying agenda. The resolution had been defeated at last year’s meeting, but poignantly the issue was passed on to the House of Delegates by the LGBT advisory committee. The AMA is the nation’s largest physician association but famously has less than half of the nation’s medical doctors as members; taking a stand on a polarizing issue like gun control will not help unify their profession.
Every year, associations take stands on controversial political issues that, at first glance, are seemingly unrelated to their core mission. Whether it is the AMA supporting gun restrictions, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) opposing religious freedom laws in Indiana, or the American Academy of Pediatrics supporting gay couples adopting children – to cite a few examples – the news is full of stories of associations representing their professions and members in areas that are quite unexpected. While opponents of the policies may label them as “opportunistic” or politically biased, in many cases they are the offshoot of thought-out and strategically planned policies.
Undoubtedly there is a benefit to being in front of a major political issue; if done right, an association advocating for or against an issue brings the profession together and plants a flag that shows non-members what their professional association stands for. While there will never be 100 percent agreement on politically charged issues, having a process to create a political stand on a relevant issue could provide a boost to an association’s membership, lobbying efforts and Q rating. By taking a stand, the association can be seen as willing to advocate for what it sees as right for its members and who they serve, which in turn benefits the community.
As many of these issues are controversial, however, endorsing a political cause has to be done correctly. The consequence could be the loss of members, damage of credibility in the public eye and the hemorrhaging of staff. For example, the American Psychological Association’s policies on members’ participation in interrogations in the mid-2000s has come back to do immense damage to the association’s brand with accusations the policies were coordinated with the Bush administration.
How can an association successfully navigate the tricky waters of endorsing controversial political issues?
1. Always have relevant policies, procedures and bylaws in place to ensure that any position your association takes is compatible with its own policies. Anyone surprised by ASAE’s advocacy in the area of religious freedom laws was not paying attention to the association’s work. ASAE had been creating “D+I” policies and procedures for years, and the phrase “diversity and inclusion” had been used by President & CEO John Graham in his comments on the state of the industry. When it released its statement on the Indiana legislation, Graham was able to point to ASAE’s support for the inclusion in association management for the basis of their positions.
The easiest way to deflect criticism or prove support for a controversial political position is to have association policy in that area upon which your position can be based. If your association has a process by which committees/groups of members create, debate and approve association policy, you immediately have a bedrock on which to base your decisions of proactively taking positions on controversial issues.
2. Identify a member or members as leaders who are authentic to the issue. Your association has a spokesperson who is the media contact for major issues (if not, rectify this immediately). But it also makes sense to identify leadership or key volunteers that can speak authentically on the issue. For example, if your association endorses a ban on members participating in the execution of criminals, a board member who served on an execution panel immediately adds experience and gravitas to your association’s message. It is important, however, to make sure that person is authentic and free of conflict; the worst thing is to put forward a member on a controversial issue who is immediately discredited because of a conflict in their past.
3. Use stories to illustrate why this issue is important to you. In a joint statement, the American Booksellers Association condemned in the strongest language HB2, the state’s 2016 “religious freedom” law, as well as the boycotts surrounding it. To show why they opposed the bill, the statement told the brief story of events that benefitted the community that had be to be canceled because the invited celebrity authors declined to participate in any state event due to HB2. By dedicating a paragraph to these local stories, the ABA made it clear why they were getting involved and, most importantly, why it was a priority.
4. Be ready to put your money where your mouth is. One of the things that stood out most about the AMA’s position statement announcement on guns was that they specifically mentioned they would be lobbying on the issue. Of course an association lobbies on its organizational positions, but to specifically state it showed that it was willing to spend money – always an important association asset – to advertise its position. If your association is going to be controversial, don’t hide it unless you want to look like you are embarrassed by your stance.
As representatives of a profession or industry, associations have a right and an obligation to speak out for and against major issues they feel impact their members and the profession. However, doing so with a process in place and strategic guidance will allow your association to take advantage of the controversy and position yourself to stand out to your members and the public.