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So, every time an association ends up on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert I just slap my forehead. This time I almost knocked myself off the couch.
Stephen Colbert just did a takedown of the Envelope Manufacturers Association and a spin off PR effort of theirs known as Consumers for Paper Options. Obviously, its a comedy piece and played for effect but I can't let it go. I don't know the folks at EMA or CPO (and after this, I'm pretty sure I won't get the chance to) but I am sure they are well meaning association professionals who are doing their level best to represent their members interests in the best way they know how. It's what we have all been taught is our job - to serve the members.
However, as an association professional I can tell you I think Stephen Colbert's Envelopefest 2014 is a perfect example of what I'm beginning to think of as "member-holicism."
I had a conversation earlier this week with a fellow colleague and point blank asked, "Why are associations not at the table when 'broad' conversations are happening? We are at the table when something particular to our own specific industry or profession is involved, but broadly speaking associations as a group seem to be locked out of larger conversations regarding society as a whole." His answer - "People (speaking writ large) don't trust us." The piece from Mr. Colbert exemplifies why.
Don't get me wrong - I understand the value of associations containing collectives of people who advocate for their interests, bring different perspectives to the table, and define what the operating environment looks like for their members to consumers, legislators and regulators. I get it. And there is nothing wrong with "self-interest" per se. But too many times "self-interest" is where the conversation stops. We rarely get to the "problem solving" stage nor do we have anything to offer beyond "what's good for our members is good for you!"
I did some cursory research this morning on the Consumers for Paper Options website. I believe they have a stellar argument to make about the digital divide in America and how seniors, people who do not have access to broadband or who are in poverty could potentially be locked out of vital government services if a wholesale switch to a paperless system goes through. Sure, this action could very well adversely affect vulnerable populations. I'm with ya' on that one. Great argument and extremely valid. It's a problem and it needs a solution.
But let's be honest.This effort isn't REALLY, primarily about the digital divide. It's not. It's about how we can co-opt a message for our own purposes. All of us have been in the room when one of these conversations have taken place about a spin-off PR effort and it almost always goes like this:
1) Government/consumers/industry cutting down on (____insert product or profession here___)
2) Sales will be affected! Members will struggle!
3) We need a good message here so we don't look like we are worried about sales or our own jobs!
4) I know! Let's set up a consumer group and say we are here to defend consumers rights and protect poor people! No elected officials want to offend consumers or hurt poor people! (unless you are talking about unemployment, education or health care...but I digress)
5) Cool! We got the amendment! Sales are safe! Put that in the newsletter Barry so we can demonstrate our value to our members!
And that is where the conversation ends. It begins with self-interest and ends with self-interest with a smattering of "doing good" in the middle. It's the "Twinkie" theory of public relations.
In the meantime, three issues remain up in the air - sustainability, government spending and most importantly - the actual digital divide. Is there a problem to be solved? Yes, there are three! However, balance and nuance is lost in the argument because of - the members. This is why we are member-holics. Our rush to "protect and defend" our members interests cause us to bump up against real problems but only to co-opt the message for a lobbying campaign to meet a narrow purpose, not to actually solve anything.
Por ejemplo, if this group is really concerned about the digital divide - they should be doing something about it. They should be teaming up to oppose the Comcast/Time Warner merger. They should be coalition partners with telecomm to ensure broadband access is delivered to every community in the United States at low or no cost. They should support educational efforts to ensure seniors, low income or other populations gain the skills and confidence they need to operate in a new economy and yes, make the eventual switch to electronic. AND they should be looking at other ways envelope manufacturers can evolve their businesses to adapt to new information delivery technologies. Come up with some crazy ideas for envelopes that can be used more than once, or team up with Jeff Bezos and create the "self-delivering envelope" or SOMETHING more clever than you get an envelope, you get an envelope, everybody gets an envelope!
I'm already hearing the pushback. Well, working on actual broadband delivery is outside of our member scope. We don't have enough resources to engage in a larger effort. Our members are only interested in supporting lobbying efforts that...wait for it....waaaait for it....show them a return on their dues investment. I'm sure you are right. And in that case, maybe you shouldn't position yourselves as the champions of the digital divide and just be honest - we have customers who still need envelopes so back off bucko.
We frequently end up with these ethical issues in associations because of this need to 'serve the members interests' with whatever flavor of the day, fake shell group lobbying effort we can dream up. It is quite possible this group has nothing but the BEST interests of the consumers at heart. However, they ended up on Colbert because of one thing and one thing only - they look like what we suspect they might be - a lobbying effort set up to shore up sales for a member base in a dying or diminishing industry. There's a recipe for the future - protect dying technology at all costs because improvements will hurt members instead of supporting improvements that could help us all.
I know it seems like younger members aren't interested in us. I submit it might be because they are a sophisticated generation. Systems thinkers raised in a media age that has taught them the skills to see through the marketing/PR shell game. They don't really want to be a part of a system rooted in the protectionism of the past. It isn't that they don't want to join - maybe it's that they don't always want to join US. Quite frankly, if we are truly interested in our members, we should be brave enough to tell them what they don't want to hear - that sometimes our members' industries or professions are in diminishment and/or decline and they need to take the intervening time during the decline to innovate, retrofit or find something else to do.
Associations can lead the way....or not. But for God's sake do the rest of us fellow association professionals a favor and if you're running a shell campaign put some meat in it. Every time one of us ends up on Colbert, we all look like idiots.
I think we can be better than this. But only if we admit we are member-holics, put the dues invoice down and seek help.