In Europe, having a strong proactive public affairs outreach program is now more critical than ever as private and public communities face huge resource and financial pressures along with the focus on the impact of sustainability on businesses and society, according to a senior panel during an American Chamber of Commerce Belgium workshop hosted at MCI Brussels.
The session featured contributions from:
- Charles Laroche, Senior Advisor, Tällberg Foundation, former VP European External Affairs at Unilever, Board Member of such associations as CEFIC, COLIPA, as well as former President of A.I.S.E.
- Dave Deruytter, Senior Manager Expatriates & Non-Residents ING, Board Member at Association of Belgian Relocation Companies
- Roberto Zangrandi, Head of European Institutional Relations at Enel S.p.A.
- Jef de Clercq, Managing Director at Engineering Services & Consultancy, Volunteer Leader at International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering)
- Nikki Walker, VP Global Association Management and Consulting, MCI Group
Just like in the US, Europe faces a sharp decrease in public trust in the political and financial systems in member countries following the recent debt crises and the fast pace of technological change which is leading companies to operate increasingly globally and regionally while trying to ensure public and employee behavior and opinion can keep pace.
Too many European associations are ill-equipped to tackle these challenges. Today, many are still struggling to address the current European political reality.
Presenters offered the following tips for constructing more proactive PA programs:
- Influence – build strong partnerships through an interactive and well coordinated network; invest in strategic intelligence; and gain a position as a recognized authority representing your industry.
- Effectiveness – agree on key priorities, focus on strategic, long-term ‘must win’ (not nice to have) issues; simplify structures through alignment and teamwork; put the right qualified people in the right places; and implement effective financial management organized by projects.
- Leadership – agree on a strategy inspired by the Board of Directors’ vision; ensure the engagement of company top executives (not necessarily members of the Board); empower the association staff; and have excellent internal communication processes.
- Trust – establish one’s reputation overtime based on competence, credibility and indisputable transparency.
Associations have to take a proactive approach to the issues facing their sector if they are to maintain their relevance to members and get their continued buy-in.
Anticipate emerging expectations through strong partnerships and mutual understanding with all stakeholders in order to best position the association as a trusted source for solutions to difficult issues through smarter regulatory policy.
Continuously develop and promote voluntary industry initiatives and bring added value to the membership and Society at large. By being ahead of the regulatory curve, you can openly acknowledge and deliver solutions to difficult environmental or other issues affecting your industry.
Promote a strong leadership network through an interactive communication process that engages and involves all members.
Will the membership model of today still be here in 2015?
The panel seemed to think we’ll see a more customized approach with a move away from a flat membership fee to one tailored based on usage of services. We’ll need to start reconsidering the membership structure and the value of the previously untouchable traditional ways of things.
The concluding question raised by Susanne Zänker, Director-General of AISE served as an excellent reminder to the assembled executives. She said she was currently trying to integrate a network of nine multinational companies, 35 national associations (approximately 900 companies) and asked how a company feels its view/specific issue is being listened to through a trade association which has to represent the whole sector?
Associations must move from reacting to anticipating emerging stakeholder problems. The future of our associations will depend on our capacity to deliver appropriate content and the strategic industry overview to help policy-makers. Some associations may not be able to demonstrate such value and slowly disappear.
Focus on what is strategically important. Be clear about what you can offer but recognizing the need for synergy with other associations to create alliances on cross-cutting issues.