In it together

5 crisis communications must-dos for trade associations

Trade associations are somewhat removed from the daily business of the sector they represent. This does not make them any less prone to crises, contrary to what we may generally think…

My purpose here is not to run through all the usual recommendations in case of crisis but to see how they adapt to trade associations more specifically… and vice-versa.

Of course, a crisis in a trade association can hit at various levels, but most likely:

  • One specific member is affected
  • The sector as a whole is hit

Reactions vary depending on where the crisis hits.

If a member (whether organisation or company) is affected, the trade association will often decide not to react in order to protect other members. It will however generally offer support to the organisation or company affected to the extent of its capability.

"It is when a sector as a whole is hit that it epitomizes the role of a trade association."

It is when a sector as a whole is hit that it epitomizes the role of a trade association. Like for any corporation, the key is to be prepared. It is customary for trade associations not to think of themselves as crisis prone. That is a mistake.

They too should have a crisis scenario in place.

          1. Friends and foes

Trade associations should first of all monitor social media and know who their supporters and detractors are. Many trade associations are not very active on social media, either for lack of resources or for lack of mandate (or both). In case of crisis, if potential supporters are already identified they can be of help as message multipliers, particularly since trade associations generally have extremely small communications teams – if at all - who do not have the time or experience to conduct a social media counter-campaign.

The same need for mapping applies to stakeholders. Who is likely to support or attack your association in case of problem? Who will stand by you and possibly support you amongst your public affairs contacts? In the press? Who can you call directly? Make sure you have not just their e-mail address but also their mobile number.

          2. Safety first

Have a safety kit ready. This means have a series of key data at hand, who you are, who you represent, relevant figures, a history of trust or relevant case studies which show your sector knows how to react to a crisis, so that you can establish your credibility from the start.

          3. The mandate

As an association, it is absolutely essential that you have a mandate from your members to handle the crisis. If you start having to consult members left, right and centre, you will have missed the essential first reaction and you have lost it. This requires planning and agreeing in advance.

Train your management on how to react to a crisis: your director general, some of your directors, your president/chair and a couple of people in the office. Media training may also prove very useful, if they have not yet received any or if it needs brushing up.

          4. Who does what

Make sure each person involved knows what he or she has to do in case of crisis. The scenario must be rehearsed and the roles attributed in advance, so that if a crisis hits, no time is wasted in thinking about who does what.

Once you have the mandate, the scenario is in place and you have rehearsed (i.e. trained everyone), make sure you also have your essentials at hand: the direct phone numbers for all the relevant people - president, vice-president, director general, and anyone else who could step in should they not be available. Remember how crises have a habit of hitting on a Friday afternoon, Easter weekend or in August…

"As an association, it is absolutely essential that you have a mandate from your members to handle the crisis."

You should also agree on who the spokesperson will be – one and only one, preferably. You could start by bringing in your communications director or your director general, depending on the importance of the crisis or how comfortable they are with the media (hence the importance of training!) and save the president for a later stage, just in case things get worse and you need to bring in the heavyweights of the organisation.

          5. Plain language please!

Whatever you do, in trade associations like anywhere else, do not overreact. Always avoid spinning and above all, no trade association jargon!

You are not writing a position paper or issuing a typical trade association press release. This is make or break when it comes not just to your reputation but to the reputation of your sector or industry. Speak clearly, explain and engage. As a trade association, you are the one to bring the experts around the table. Do so but help them express themselves clearly.

The trust you enjoy as a trade association can help you rebuild the reputation of your sector with your regular stakeholders, an aspect members welcome in the aftermath of a crisis. So like any other organisation, trade associations should prepare and anticipate crises, react swiftly but carefully and, most of all, enjoy the support of their members when doing so. After all, trade associations are only ever what their members make of them…

Florence spoke about crisis communications for trade associations at a Regional Debate hosted by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) in Brussels in February 2016. The EACD organises a series of events across Europe throughout the year, and most of them are open to non-members and members alike - to find events happening in your region, visit the EACD's online event calander.



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Florence Ranson

Florence Ranson is founder of REDComms. Previously, she was director of communications at FoodDrinkEurope. She took this role in April 2014, after 12 years as head of communications at the European Banking Federation. She is responsible among other things for media relations and CSR. Before that, Florence was secretary general of the European Advertising Tripartite, the European organisation representing advertisers, communications agencies and media.