Trade Associations’ Internal Advocacy Challenges

11th January 2019
Alexander Mohr

In recent years, global and international trade associations have transformed into effective advocacy and lobbying tools. Internal advocacy toward membership is often neglected—but it’s one of the most crucial factors to consider.

The last decade has seen a drastic shift in terms of management and the repositioning of trade associations toward stakeholders and members. External advocacy and lobbying have become more of the core focus for trade associations, but there’s another aspect that’s just as important: internal lobbying toward members.

Trade associations today are comprised of a diverse membership, from stock market-listed, globally operating companies to smaller SMEs and regional or national associations. Structures within companies do often differ, but it’s important that associations coordinate on different priorities and structures when it comes to crucial policy development.

Increasingly challenging

In an increasingly challenging political environment, policy statements often have an immediate and direct impact on entire industry sectors—especially in terms of trade dispute and development. Member companies need information for planning security and to adjust internal human and financial resources. Therefore, concise internal communication and advocacy toward the membership—as well as quick information on policy discussions—are crucial if associations want to stay ahead of development and offer quick responses.

Trade association management often believes their membership is aware of day-to-day operations and challenges, but this is a general misconception. Due to time constraints, members may lack detailed understanding of internal association structures. Trade association secretariats often fail to communicate or place their work in an economic or political context, especially when it comes to complex technical and regulatory achievements.

Legislative proposals that could have a direct impact on an industry—or would result in higher costs for entire sectors—are sometimes not highlighted enough. In the long run, actions that result in the prevention (or partial prevention) of any extra burden for companies creates high-cost savings for the industry. This is even more important in budget discussions, which are often seen as cost centres. The value of association work is most easily expressed in numerical fashion, and avoiding costs creates indirect value, providing association board members with the right tools to express the trade association’s value during company budget planning processes and discussions.

More internal

The question now becomes “how?”How can associations focus more on internal lobbying? In addition to membership publications and newsletters, general assemblies, board and committee meetings are the most common forums of communication to open discussion on challenges and achievements. However, these traditional tools also have their limitations. Restricted, online member networks that limit access to information and internal libraries (but allow for secretariats and members to edit position papers) are helping speed up coordination processes and enhance transparency. In my experience, policy makers who offer quick, unified and internally coordinated responses are what stakeholders and members value most.

In our association, the European Flavour industry association, which consists of global companies and smaller SMEs, we wanted to increase our visibility to stakeholders, so we needed to rethink our collaboration strategies. We did this, for instance, through joint internal publications or external information letters. Quotes and statements from our stakeholders which we published in our newsletters were, in this context, a visible sign of endorsement. Our general assemblies were also a great opportunity to invite stakeholders and partners of the industry to exchange further and to identify possible future fields of collaboration.

Basic standard office software allows today’s associations to work in a collaborative manner on joint documents and statements. This allows for faster, coordinated input on public consultations of institutions, while also increasing their profile and visibility toward related partner trade associations—especially in the b2b realm. By increasing dissemination of information through social internal and external networks (such as restricted LinkedIn groups), members and external stakeholders will be directly involved—and kept informed.

For companies engaged in trade associations, increased internal information and enhanced collaboration offer a clear benefit: first-hand information from in-house policy experts familiar with all aspects of the business. By bringing external lobbying efforts in line with internal advocacy, associations can ensure long-term success and continue propelling position industry interests forward.

This article was contributed by Brussels-based Alexander Mohr, PhD, Executive Director of the European Flavour industry association, EFFA. He writes in his own capacity.

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