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Associations Now August Case Study: Blog Brushfire

Those of you who read this blog and others are probably already aware of how fast bad news can travel on the internet. (For that matter, those of you whose associations have listservers probably knew that long before the first association blog was launched.) But when your association is the target of that negative blogger reaction, what’s the best way to handle it?

This month’s Associations Now case study, "Blog Brushfire," looks at a fictional association facing a wave of criticism online. Commentators Maddie Grant and Barbara Hyde did a fantastic job of peeling away the layers of the issue and looking at the many factors involved in responding to a communications crisis of this sort. What do you think? Has your association ever dealt with a similar situation—and if you have, what advice would you share?

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Comments

This was a fun project! I must say, the issue of what to do about negative comments is what everyone is worried about, despite the fact that those comments tend to be fairly rare (which is why there's so much hoopla around examples in the for-profit world). The main lesson is not to be afraid to engage in dialogue and to answer posts which may be misguided, not knowledgeable about all the facts, or just emotionally charged. Most people will be happy to be given a straight answer - and if the issue is inherently wrong and you end up making changes as a result, you can then be seen as flexible, open and willing to listen, which is a good thing too! I will be interested to see if anyone has further questions about the scenario depicted in the case study. Thanks for the opportunity to add my two cents to it!

The case study included excellent comments! (I posted a review on the ASAE site).

I'd like to know more about the blogger who made the initial posting. He had to be very concerned to start this dialog. Why did he make a public statement? Has this issue arisen before? Does he not have confidence in the association? What is his involvement in the association?

Maddie--Thank you for sharing your additional thoughts about the case study here on Acronym. You did such a great job with your comments for the original case study; I think a lot of readers are going to be inspired by what you had to say!

David--I would say that Ed, the blogger who touched off the debate in this month's case study, wasn't really thinking of his blog post as a public statement or a vote of no confidence in ATTA. He honestly did feel that it was inappropriate for the board to meet in what he saw as an expensive location when dues had recently been raised. (ATTA is one of those associations that doesn't raise dues on a regular basis, so members tend to perceive a dues increase as out of the ordinary.) But when he actually posted to his blog, Ed was mostly thinking that he wanted to get a blog post up, and this particular issue happened to be on his mind that morning. He didn't realize that he would touch a nerve with his readers and other ATTA members.

It's also worth noting that Ed himself had volunteered occasionally with ATTA on an ad-hoc basis, but he had never served on the board or on a standing committee of the association. It's possible he would have seen travel for a board meeting as more "normal" if he'd been through it himself. Which isn't to say Ed is wrong--just that he has a different perspective on board meetings than an association staff person, or a long-time volunteer, might. Perhaps Ed isn't seeing the big picture--or perhaps the ATTA staff and board should be reconsidering where or how often the board meets and looking for ways to cut that board meeting budget ...

Maddie just posted some additional thoughts about the case study on her blog, along with some wise words from Jackie Huba ...

It is probably hypocritical to write this ON a blog, but I actually second the general impression that Bryan has in your case study ... many times in organizations we dedicate excessive resources to micro-focusing on board perceptions, to me addressing Ed the negative blogger's comments in a very serious way is focusing on something that is one step more removed from the mission critical functions of the association.
The comment posted on Maggie's blog "It is a mistake for Bryan to discount the opinions of the small percentage of people who comment on blogs. They often represent the opinions of a much wider group and can be leveraged to change negative perceptions into positive ones." I think is half right and quite testable. As other parts of ASAE encourage 'data driven strategies' I always feel as if it's an empirical question as to whether the negative perception is real. It's impossible to survey for but easier to poll for perceptions. And most of the content of the criticism of course is either valid or unfounded based on a more nuanced view of the case studied association's finances and practices.
One very good thing about the Ed criticism is that he's a good watchdog speaking up for accountability and transparency. The fictional character reminds me of the kind of people I used to write back and forth to or speak with on the phone in my last charity, where customer service always forwarded to me the toughest in-bound callers, and the most implacable foes online. (They figured if I was responsible for all marketing, I must be the most staffer most responsible for setting the person off.)
Addressing the critic directly is always the right thing to do, and part of our jobs, I believe, but beyond a certain point one has to go past the blogging group to determine if they represent the bleeding edge or just voicing personal frustrations with life in general--probably a 50/50 chance it's one or the other.

Kevin, it's not hypocritical to say that on a blog at all; part of the inspiration for Bryan's character was the idea of giving a voice to the folks who would argue against the more aggressive course of action the communications director in this case study is recommending. It's an important argument to consider, especially in a communications field that's as new and rapidly evolving as social media.

Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on the case study--especially your comments about Ed. So many associations have Ed-ish members (although not all Eds are bloggers), and it's important to listen to what they have to say.

Lisa, your comment about the blogger not having the experience of traveling to Board meetings is very important.

Most members NEVER travel to Board or committee meetings. Going to the annual meeting is frequently a big deal and often requires an appeal to association budgeters to make it happen.

Also, Board members (who travel to meetings) often seek to trim meeting and travel expenses for staff. So Ed's perspective is far more common that than of Board or staff members.

Just read this comment thread and had to say amen to Kevin Whorton's post. The notion that bloggers "often represent the opinions of a much wider group" is patently ridiculous.

You could waste a million hours changing every little thing about every little program because one person calls and complains. The same is true about blogs. Anyone can start one, and if they're funny enough and post often enough, they'll get a small number of readers. Yes, associations should read them; yes, associations should respond when appropriate; yes, associations should engage when appropriate. But don't give them more weight than they deserve and for goodness' sake don't change your organization's actions or direction based on what a blogger and his/her friends think.

On the whole, I felt this particular case study was about people expending a lot of energy worrying about something that ultimately wasn't very important.

I totally second what The Other Kevin wrote.

Ultimately, blogs and other social media tools are the online equivalent to what would otherwise be live conversations. The sentiments Ed expressed on his blog and the ensuing flurry of comments could have just as easily taken place in the form of a conversation in the hall between sessions at a meeting or wherever. Dues increases, meeting fees--it's a fact of life that members will complain about that stuff.

While obviously Lynn,Bryan and Stewart wouldn't have been pleased to overhear this same conversation, would it really have been taken as seriously as the same comments expressed on a blog? If every member complaint were treated with this same sense of alarm and urgency, nobody would ever get any work done other than holding emergency meetings about how to respond to member X's complaint that publishing paper journals is not eco-friendly or that the website isn't easy to navigate.

I think Lynn's response was good and I would have left it at that; I think something more "official" isn't necessary. Maybe a post on ATTA's blog about what factors figure into the decision-making process when it comes to meeting venue selection--an explanation and leave it at that. I mean, what could anyone really say that would appease the members and make them all happy? Unfortunately, nothing.

First off, the communications director's desire for more transparency is commendable. This whole episode could have been avoided had that been the case originally, as effective communication would have allowed members to understand how the dues increase was going to be utilized and administered. I do understand that it's tough to bring people into the fold of a board meeting though. I think the communications director's response was great in that it reflected facts and communicated how it all works...

In addition, looking at this at a little different angle, does anyone else feel like the executive (who knows the online communication area is not his forte) should allow his communications director to manage this situation without feeling the need to step in? Isn't this case study also about empowering your employees to manage situations that might not be easy? As the communications director, shouldn't she be capable of handling this situation where there are a few negative comments being made?

I guess I was a little put off by the executive stepping into the office, asking her if she saw the blog post originally (which she obviously had if she was doing her job) and then making her feel as though she had to follow his way of handling it instead of hers... He essentially handcuffed her into having to wait until after he was out of a meeting to make a move, although this situation may have called for a quicker response to head off any issues that may have arisen while he was in his meeting...

I understand the the executive is ultimately responsible for the organization's activities, but it just seems to me that he could have handled the situation a little differently as well in terms of allowing his employee to handle her job.

In a perfect world, she would keep him apprised of how she was handling the situation and engage him in why she is doing what she's doing, and he would allow her to do her job and trust her judgment.

As a lot of people have told me in my position, you have to surround yourself as a leader with people who are more knowledgeable than you in certain areas. Had he trusted his employee, this may have been handled a little smoother and quicker than it was.

If people with more experience than me think I am completely wrong, please post. I may just be naive and need a little wise judgment from someone who has been in the leader's chair!

There are many things that can be labeled ridiculous in the association management/leadership world (like not renewing your membership!), but I would certainly not call the idea that a blogger's comment might represent a wider voice "patently ridiculous." Is there any empirical evidence of one blogger reprepresenting the unspoken masses? No, but empirical evidence doesn't always drive good decision making. Ultimately every blog comment represents the voice of that particular person, but in the association world a great majority of members do not speak up, so it is critically important to listen (and listen carefully) to the ones who do.

The association I took over last summer had experienced five straight years of membership decline. Today, we are about 2% bigger than one year ago - the proverbial bleeding has stopped, and healing has begun. I think we are realizing more and more little victories, because we have made a serious committment to what I call a "listening culture." I learned a long time ago that you cannot please all the people all the time (like this Ed character), and you shouldn't necessarily die trying. Most of the time members just want to know they can express a "gripe or grin" (as the TSA blog calls complaints and kudos), and that someone from the association is TRULY listening. How do they know when someone is truly listening? When they get a real, live reply from an official association representative (volunteer, staff, etc).

I think the fact is that many association staff members would prefer not to hear these complaints - on a blog or elsewhere. It's easier to hope something like this will just die on the vine. Our lives are easier and more pleasant when we can focus on innovation, new programs, campaigns, etc.

How many of us have ever had a serious gripe about anything, and just wanted someone to hear us out? At those moments we tend to feel like we're the most important people in the world. I have a problem. I want to be heard. I want something to change. Every time a member has a gripe about the association, he or she is likely feeling like that, no matter how ridiculous or trivial we may think the issue may be. The worst response is no response. The acceptable response (mostly) is just SOME response at all that indicates someone is listening. The best response is when a thorough and personalized explanation is given. If the response is agreeable, great. If the response is disagreeable, then voila! A conversation has begun. The VERY best response (which is rare of course) is when things actually change due to your complaint.

From my own perspective with the association I lead and serve, I think taking every complaint or concern that is shared with us privately or publicly as seriously as possible is making all the difference in our efforts to succeeed. When we get those virulent complaints over email once in a while, I actually get excited! I relish the opportunities to respond. Due to one complaint from one member, we made one big change to our weekly email newsletter. Our open rates have jumped almost 10% this year. Coincidence? Maybe. From participating in a competitive, free forum, we have addressed complaints about our association - and have caused 180 degree turnarounds in attitudes towards us. One upset former member here...one curmudgeon there. One and one make two. These opportunities come every week in one way or another. We have embraced this "listening culture" as a top organization priority. I think associations that do their very best to be active listeners and responders to all member (or non-member) complaints no matter where they surface (solicited or unsolicited), and no matter how trivial the complaints, will gain greater insight than the average association, will achieve better retention than the average association, and will receive a much higher level of respect and admiration from their members. Is it time-consuming? You bet. But if it's one of your top priorities, it is likely to be time-consuming.

For what it's worth, below is how our leadership and staff characterize our "listening culture." Actively pursuing this culture is just as important to us as developing the next great strategically-important benefit. Dealing with the Ed's is not diverting us from our real work - it IS our real work.

Even if Ed's view represents only Ed, my opinion is to provide an ample response; not just a sufficient one. An ample response would cover more than just the issue of the board meeting. ATTA has several members questioning the value of their dues (they're not really complaining about price...rarely is it about price). Address the board travel issue, but also take the opportunity to explain why the dues investment is still a phenomenal value.

Listening Culture
PAII will respond measurably to members with respect, promptness, courtesy, care and empathy. PAII will conduct our affairs with honesty, a positive attitude, the highest ethical standards, integrity, sincerity, and enthusiasm. PAII will serve our members with the excellent level of service our members are expected to provide their guests. PAII will actively seek the input and advice from our membership and always be available to listen to our members and allies. PAII will keep members informed of who we are, what we stand for, what we are doing and why we are doing it. PAII will provide meaningful and ample volunteer opportunities. PAII will recognize members for longevity of service and outstanding contributions to PAII and the innkeeping industry.

Love this discussion. In this particular case study, the blogger's comments DID represent the views of a wider group of bloggers, since the story had already spread. Do they represent the views of a wider group of (non-blogging) members? Who knows. Most members probably don't give a toss about any of the affairs of the association that don't affect them directly. However, I do think that we need to always bear in mind that a blogger's negative comments have the potential to spread, and we need to figure out how to respond in such a way as to minimize that, like you would for any negative PR, because like someone said, this information is now permanently "out there" - unlike conversational grumbling in the hallway.

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