Written by Felipe Sturgis • Published 9th April 2019 • 4 minute read

The online media landscape has seen an incredible evolution across the past decade. The 24-hour news cycle means there is a constant churn of news, opinions and hot takes. On top of this, social media provides everyone with a platform to share their thoughts. There is an increased need for businesses to adapt to this always-on, commentary-heavy environment and understand the right and most appropriate time for official reaction.

Trade associations sit in a unique position when it comes to presenting a unified opinion in the media, as they must represent and accommodate a host of differing views and voices. Trying to gauge when there is a story that requires – or could benefit from – a response is a communications challenge that needs constant analysis, teamwork and understanding.

If a membership association puts out a response which is poorly timed or unnecessary, it can lead to unhappy members, public dissatisfaction and discredited authority. Knowing when to react is vital, while knowing when to remain silent can be just as important to the success of any trade association’s media strategy.

Have clear goals

Associations must have a clear response strategy to protect against knee-jerk, damaging reactions to crises or the press. Associations should only respond if there’s a clear understanding of each of the following criteria: What is the most important message to convey? What are you adding to the story? Will it add value to members and/ or the public? How are members and stakeholders affected by this issue?

If trade associations are unable to fully answer any of these questions, there is a real risk of commenting for a comment’s sake and opening the door to widespread criticism.

There are hourly examples of associations adding excellent value to public debate through their media interactions, from the Wine and Spirits Association commenting on the rise of flavoured gin sales, to ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) adding valuable guidance on new alcohol consumption laws in Tenerife.

The juggling act of keeping members and stakeholders happy (and represented) but also keeping public opinion on your side is difficult. However, in having clear goals and criteria for responses, you offset any potential future issues in deciding whether you should react to certain stories.

Be wary of overreaction

It’s all too easy to be swept up by the news agenda if it affects your sector. A poorly informed columnist taking a pop at an industry issue or a competitor making bold and unsubstantiated claims are unfortunately commonplace – and it’s essential to understand that there are differing opinions everywhere. However, there can be internal pressure from members and management to issue a response, or media directly requesting an association’s input. It can be very difficult to know the parameters of a well-thought-out comment.

This is not to say associations should remain silent on most issues. Over the course of the past two years many trade groups have successfully voiced opinions against certain Brexit measures. Industries spanning the gamut of sectors are anticipating various changes; comments and media appearances to back up the concerns of their membership is not seen as an overreaction, but instead a necessary step.

The importance of steering clear of overreaction isn’t exclusive to associations – any individual or business needs to be wary of how a response can inform public and stakeholder perception. In cases that seem contentious and controversial within your association, or where there is no clear need to comment, it may be better to remain outwardly silent and instead focus on internal communications.

Don’t become the story

The worst-case scenario is when a trade association’s poorly placed comments turn into a negative story.

Dairy UK’s response to a vegan cheesemonger, La Fauxmangerie, in Brixton is a clear example of when an association has not properly assessed the situation and potential reactions. Despite the shop’s repeated references to its produce being totally animal and animal-derivative free, the dairy trade body stated the so-called ‘cheesemonger’ was misleading customers. It claimed it would be planning legal action.

Dairy UK’s comment was not well-received by the press, and its mention of the law and EU regulations highlighted an overly heavy-handed response to a local enterprise. Although the association was trying to reactively voice the opinions of members who are operating in a particularly tough market, this example was not the right news to rail against, and it led to Dairy UK appearing somewhat foolish as the legal threats issue showed they weren’t on board with the joke.

Ultimately, La Fauxmangerie benefited from Dairy UK’s comments, as it received additional press, and was painted as the small, innocent, independent shop berated by an association that was venting frustrations about the vegan movement in the wrong tone – and through the wrong medium.

This is an example for other trade associations: measure the situation and the perceived threat (including whether it truly is a threat) and consider potential backlash before responding.

Trade associations receive constant internal and external pressure to push a certain point of view, but if the response comes across as petty then this can have a highly negative impact on the association. It may be perceived as silly, insensitive, or non-representative of its members opinions; there is a potential minefield of critical reactions. Risk assessments should be done to alleviate potential damage control.

As 24-hour comment culture continues to thrive, there are increasing opportunities for trade associations to comment on stories and industry matters. It is more important than ever to take time to consider responses to any reaction, and only issue measured responses. An entire industry’s reputation is at stake.

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