Building Trust and Protecting Association Reputations 

Both online and off, building trust and reputation starts with strategic communications and crisis preparedness.

By Ande Leslie 

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At a time when public trust in institutions is eroding and the prevalence of fake news is increasing, understanding the correlation between effective brand management and protection of reputation starts with the simple principle of preparedness. Before an association can reshape its position in the marketplace or enhance its reputation with strategic communications, it must first understand how it builds trust with its audiences to drive positive outcomes.  

Build a Culture of Trust  

Professional associations have an opportunity to be a credible source of information, education, and best practices for their industry. As an association, you can regularly inform, educate, influence, and persuade attitudes, viewpoints, and behavior that is representative of your entire profession. These communications can shape members’ attitudes and, at times, the public’s attitude. Younger generations especially are seeking new institutions and knowledge sources to curb misinformation. 

Building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference and, with trust, associations can create positive outcomes, be more productive, generate higher-quality education, and increase collaboration. The more satisfied a member is, the more likely they are to renew their membership and invite colleagues to join. It is a win-win for advancing your mission, creating engagement, and increasing your bottom line. In addition, if and when a crisis may arise, your organization already has an established reputation as a trusted and reliable source of information.  


Protect Your Reputation Strategically 

Associations of all sizes face multiple challenges. Volunteer leaders and staff are confronting complex issues and pressure on business models, navigating sensitive topics, social media controversies, leadership succession, diversity, equity, and inclusion matters and more. Every organization has the responsibility to make its own decisions about whether or not to take action based on its mission, values, beliefs, and constituents. Rarely is there a clear right or wrong answer. To meet these moments, many associations are evolving their marketing and content strategies to incorporate strategic communications elements to reshape their position in the marketplace and to strengthen their reputation.  

Strategic communications focuses more broadly on an organization’s mission and reputation, without the goal of supporting a specific product or service. Strategic communications typically includes: 

  • Crisis preparedness and response 
  • Issues management 
  • Executive communications 
  • Media relations 
  • Research 

Don’t wait for a crisis to arise. Associations should consider strategic communications as a preparedness tool, rather than simply in response to a particular event. Oftentimes, the very process of thinking through those issues – and then taking steps in advance to reach key stakeholders – improves the organization’s position. 

Stay True to Your Mission 

Associations can prepare for these potential issues by addressing a series of questions about their own purpose and history, rather than just simply trying to respond in the moment after they’ve occurred. Organizations can ask: 

  • Does your organization have a clear understanding of the issue? 
  • Is the issue connected to your mission? 
  • Does the issue impact your members, stakeholders, and industry sector? 
  • Are you also taking organizational action or encouraging members to take action? 
  • Can the issue affect the association’s financial position? How? 
  • Will the absence of a response be damaging? 
  • Will your membership/stakeholders support your approach? 
  • Is your approach consistent with your actions/reputation as an organization? 
  • Most broadly, is it a moral issue of such consequence that you feel required to speak out? 

The answers to these questions and, just as importantly, the discussion around these questions, can help organizations make better decisions when confronted with challenging issues. 

Speak with One Voice 

Your board and senior leadership have discussed and evaluated the risks and rewards of responding to an issue. Now what? Once a decision has been reached, the board and other leadership must speak with one voice. Consider the following when planning the communication strategy: 

  • Who is the voice behind the message? 
  • What stakeholders do you need to communicate with regarding your decision? And in what order? 
  • What core message(s) and language does each audience need to receive? 
  • What factors do you have to take into consideration for timing and distribution of communications to each audience?  
  • How will you communicate to each audience? 

Like any business, associations should employ crisis readiness best practices. By employing some basic preparation in advance, you are able to minimize damage, respond thoughtfully, and will be steps ahead in navigating the crisis, issue, or incident itself.  

About the Author

Ande Leslie is a Marketing Director at Smithbucklin and currently serves the Association for Nursing Professional Development and the Popcorn Board. With 15+ years of experience in association marketing, Ande specializes in driving results and meeting clients’ strategic goals in brand management, membership, year-round education, conference attendance, sales programs, social media, and advertising. She also leads the external marketing strategy and business development activities for Smithbucklin. Ande holds a Bachelor of Arts in public relations and advertising from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. and is a certified nonprofit professional (CNP). 

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