Current Affairs

COVID-19 & the Transformation of Association Advocacy

25th May 2020

While associations have long advocated for their members’ interests before governments and multilateral institutions around the world, COVID-19 has rapidly transformed association advocacy. With policymakers responding to the public health and economic crisis in real time, the important advocacy work that associations do in global capitals on behalf of their members has never been more urgent. At the same time, with most public affairs and advocacy professionals confined to their homes, associations have fundamentally altered their advocacy strategies and tactics to succeed in this fast-moving environment. Tommy Goodwin, an international association public affairs and advocacy professional finds that many associations are transforming to successfully answer theses challenge times.

High-stakes for association advocacy today and tomorrow

COVID-19 has prompted extraordinary responses from governments across the globe. As a result, associations have been strenuously advocating before lawmakers and other public-sector stakeholders to provide critical support for the individuals, professions, and industries that they represent. Depending on the country or region, this has ranged from financial relief, such as access to government funding to maintain liquidity and prevent job losses, to ensuring continuity of operations, whereby association members can remain open and contribute to ongoing COVID-19 mitigation and economic recovery efforts.

For example, the Brussels-based Association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers (or EUROBAT) advocated across the European Union (EU) to make sure that European battery manufacturers could remain open. With batteries powering critical life-saving infrastructure and services—from providing back-up power for hospitals and medical equipment to powering forklifts and other cargo equipment—EUROBAT leveraged its relationships with policy makers and a social media campaign to keep its members’ manufacturing, distribution, and servicing operations up and running during the crisis.

“Our team at EUROBAT’s headquarters advocated in a timely manner to Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, and coordinated with member companies and national associations to achieve similar outcomes in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain,” noted Alfons Westgeest, General Manager for EUROBAT and Managing Partner at Kellen, the global management and advisory company for trade associations and professional societies. “At same time, EUROBAT reiterated its request for a coherent ‘battery package’ under the European Green Deal. The objective of which is to guarantee business certainty for European battery manufacturers and help them recover once the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.”

Likewise, the Chamber of Marine Commerce (or CMC), a bi-national association representing marine industry stakeholders based in Ottawa, Canada, worked with Canadian public servants and the Minister of Transport’s office to ensure that ship crews and related personnel were deemed essential and could continue to work safely and unencumbered during the crisis. This ensured the ongoing delivery of important products like grains, fuels, and building materials to communities in Canada, the United States, and internationally.

“Our early work with the Canadian federal government meant we were able to stay ahead of the curve on any new sanitary measures announced, as well as to ensure the free movement of seafarers when border restrictions took effect,”said Bruce R. Burrows, CMC President and Chief Executive Officer. “CMC also developed the ‘Marine Industry Trusted Partners for COVID-19’ initiative with its Canadian ship operator members to help assure ship owners, governments, and other stakeholders (including the public) that a mutually-agreed standard of protection, with supporting protocols, was being followed by each partner during ship-to-shore interactions. We received great attention from the government and others for this initiative, and were happy to welcome nearly 20 partners to the program to assure everyone that marine transportation is doing its part to stay safe and healthy.”

Similarly, associations have been working to actively shape how the global economy will restart in the coming weeks. In Europe, for example, four auto associations—European Automobile Manufacturers Association, European Council for Motor Trades and Repairs, European Association of Automotive Suppliers, and European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers’ Association—joined forces to deliver 25 recommendations for policymakers to help restart the European automotive sector and while supporting their members. These ranged from harmonized health and safety protocols for workers across the continent to establishing new financial incentives that would encourage Europeans to buy new cars.

While associations have been focused on short-term government interventions, there will be tremendous long-term policy implications in light of COVID-19, as well. “COVID-19 will have a substantial impact on long-term policymaking as policy priorities and the broader stakeholder landscape will shift,” advises Feriel Saouli, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Association Management for Cambre Associates, a Brussels based EU advocacy and communications consultancy. “With ever more competition for the attention of stakeholders, the role of associations at the EU level is likely to increase. Associations will have to be nimble and consider entering into new types of alliances, which may have not been obvious in the past. They will also have to re-assess their strategies and adjust their key performance indicators for advocacy success.”

Real-time innovation

From walking the halls of Capitol Hill to power lunches inside the ‘Brussels bubble,’ association public affairs and advocacy professionals have historically relied on face-to-face meetings to advance the public policy interests of their associations. With COVID-19, however, lobbyists are now adapting to a world without physical contact. Meetings have become phone calls and video conferences, while stakeholder engagement events with policymakers have gone digital, as well. 

Some forward-thinking associations have successfully leveraged this shift to virtual advocacy to advance their causes. Since the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FRDA) were already on the leading edge of using video to communicate with, and engage, their membership, they were able to quickly transition their annual in-person member ‘fly-in’ event to a virtual slate of meetings with elected officials conducted via video. Combined with regular video briefings for members with embedded advocacy calls to action, this allowed FRDA to amplify their proactive and engaged presence with lawmakers during the crisis as they work to provide tariff relief and access to capital for footwear companies and retailers in the United States.

“For the last year, we have leveraged video for our advocacy updates, and it has helped us increase member engagement, be seen as more authentic and approachable, and accelerate our association’s speed, which is key in this new virtual age,” said Andy Polk, Senior Vice President of FDRA. “As a result, it was natural to transition to video meetings. We have found that virtual meetings are a great way to reach lawmakers, increase efficiency over traditional fly-ins, and allow more of our members to participate in an authentic way. My advice for associations is to turn on the video to amplify your voice!”

Feriel Saouli from Cambre Associates agrees. “Associations will more than ever need to be compelling and embrace visual and digital advocacy,” she says. “Associations have been slow in getting into visual and digital advocacy, yet now is really the moment to make that shift to cut through the noise and show relevance.”

This further highlights the broader importance of being agile and innovative during these challenging times. “Organizations that have said they want to be more nimble and more agile are now being forced to do so, seemingly out of nowhere,” notes Nick DeSarno, Director of Digital and Policy Communications for the Public Affairs Council“For association public affairs and advocacy professionals, this is not only a time for getting your work done in a different way, it is also time to prove your value or else.”

Looking ahead

As the initial public health threat of COVID-19 hopefully subsides in the weeks and months ahead, some aspects of association advocacy will return to their pre-pandemic norms. From Whitehall to Berlaymont and far beyond, face-to-face interactions will eventually resume and associations will revert to pursuing their traditional goals and objectives on behalf of members. At the same time, however, some disruptions brought about by COVID-19 will remain and become key elements of future association advocacy efforts.

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To succeed in this new world, association public affairs and advocacy professionals must successfully combine traditional strategies and tactics with new technology-enabled innovations. Going forward, this may include hosting video advocacy events for association members around the world on Instagram Stories or Facebook Live instead of holding traditional rallies or creating virtual site tours and immersive 360-degree videos for policymakers to view and experience in lieu of traditional site visits. While its remains to be seen which of these innovations are truly effective in driving policy-change outcomes, associations must continue experimenting with new ways of advocating on behalf of their members or risk falling behind.

No matter how the new advocacy environment unfolds, associations must plan for increased uncertainty, embrace change, experiment with new tactics and technologies, and be flexible to find the best ways to advance the interests of their members around the world. “Now is an excellent time to start envisioning various scenarios of how you are going to get to where you want to go given new realities,” said Jim Miller, Principal of Connect Public Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. “The key will be to be creative in determining what possibilities could emerge and how you best position your association to prevail in the new normal, whatever that will ultimately be.”

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