Trade associations and thinktanks

In theory, an industry's trade association has the task of defending and promoting an industry on generic issues. In effect, it should act like a TPA. But while trade associations have real and valid roles on a number of fronts, they are hampered in being TPAs by a number of factors.

The 'who's paying the piper' effect

Because the association is directly funded by an industry, it is perceived to have a lack of independence. 'They would say that, wouldn't they', is the response. However, now it is even stronger: 'They have to say that, don't they?' This weakens the effectiveness of their efforts. In fact, as trade associations are even more distant from the organisation, they have less credibility. They are too often seen as puppets in the hands of their paymasters.

Preoccupation with vocal opponents

As the trade association has been founded with the sole aim of defending and promoting an industry, it should be first into battle when that industry is attacked. It should rebuff every attack and win every battle. Unfortunately, this tends to distract the association and considerable resources can be expended on single-issue pressure groups, which, as we saw earlier, is a total waste of time. As before, this has two detrimental effects: (a) the small group gets increased credibility now that the industry is 'taking it seriously', and (b) other work goes undone - particularly that of forming alliances. (Ironically, trade associations are often urged on by their members to tackle these groups in the mistaken belief that it will remove pressure from individual members.)

Trade association structure

In general, trade associations tend to have large numbers of committees with many members. One trade association has 15 committees and subcommittees with up to 20 members on each. The reasons for this are to give some sort of role to every member - to keep them happy - but there are a number of detrimental outcomes:

■ Time constraints. All the company representatives have busy and responsible jobs so the amount of time they give to the trade association tends to be small. It is not unusual for members to read their papers in the taxi on the way to a meeting and then not consider the association until the next meeting in a month's time.

■ Lack of management. With such a loose structure, the full-time executive of the trade association has a reasonably free hand. However, with a multitude of members, they often seek refuge in covering their own backsides and a culture of risk aversion soon builds up, which in effect makes the organisation ineffective.

■ Lack of focus. With so many members, no clear voice comes through and the association tries to be all things to all men. The association tries to take on too many tasks with the result that it does none well.

■ Dominance by one player. Out of the chaos, one member company tries to impose its will on the organisation and appoints a senior figure to give more time to it. This inevitably fails as other companies resent this 'takeover bid' and stop co-operating or, indeed, begin actively to hinder.

■ The 'whatever will we do with George' syndrome. Often, trade associations are dumping grounds (harsh words, but true) for executives who are on the way out of an organisation. However, the company does not want to be so cruel as to throw them immediately on the scrap heap so they are asked 'to bring their considerable management experience to bear' on the trade association, through a secondment or some such placement. George, unfortunately, is a chemical or mechanical engineer with no knowledge of communications. But that doesn't matter, it's all just common sense, isn't it? True, but so is building a nuclear power plant and we don't see many communications managers in charge of that.

Think-tanks

From these points, it will be obvious that some other form of organisation is necessary. Ideally, this organisation should have some of the following qualities:

■ Independence. The organisation must be seen to be independent. This gives credibility and helps differentiate the organisation from the industry.

■ Respected. The organisation should be well established, so that it can 'hit the ground running', rather than have to build its credentials which can take many years, if not decades.

■ Research capability. The organisation should have enough research clout to be taken seriously at the highest levels.

■ Freedom. It cannot be seen to be fettered by the industry.

■ Public profile. The organisation must have the ability to speak out without fear. For example, it must have the ability to be controversial and thought provoking.

The type of organisation which meets all of these criteria is a think-tank. These are widely used in politics and most have strong affiliations with their political masters - yet they are seen as independent. Universities and their research capabilities are widely used by the green groups. Their ideal home is often within a university or learned institutional body. An industry think-tank has a number of advantages:

■ Independence. It should be truly independent and left to its own devices; otherwise it is just a trade association. By being so, it fulfils one of the key attributes of a third party advocate. Also, this independence will lead to some minor criticisms of the industry, but that - we noted earlier - is healthy and leads to greater credibility. Enough controls should be in place to ensure that the think-tank does not go off the rails and launch widespread attacks on its sponsoring industry.

■ Media credibility. Media seldom look closely at the ancestry of think-tanks and tend to have a much higher acceptance of their utterances than those which come directly from industry or the trade association.

■ Political credibility. A think-tank can provide a useful neutral meeting ground for politicians to meet an industry. They can host many of these events.

The role of employees

Too often, with the huge emphasis on centralised communications programmes, employees are forgotten as third party advocates. This does not mean the slick company spokesperson with a 30-second sound-bite ready for TV. No, it is real 'live' employees who do not spout the company line who make first-class and highly credible advocates. These people are believed - they are real, they have not been briefed, they don't have a carefully prepared sound bite, or a carefully prepared 'question and answer' sheet, with lots of questions but few answers, up their sleeve.

However, most large corporations have a policy of threatening all employees with dismissal if they should speak to the press. Why is this? Do they not trust the employees? The answer, unfortunately, is 'yes'. And how do the employees react to this lack of trust? They feel rejected. So there are two detrimental results:

■ strong potential advocates of the company are muzzled

■ the lack of trust by the employer is a huge incentive to leak or whistle-blow. Civil service departments are classic examples of this.

For larger organisations - with a number of sites - middle managers and supervisory staff on the ground can be powerful spokespersons. Certainly, they will suffer a little from having a vested interest in protecting their jobs - but they have real credibility as the workers at the coalface rather than the faceless public relations executive from corporate HQ. They should be involved early in any contentious project.

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