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COVID-19 has upended every aspect of our professional and personal lives. And for many, blurring the two in a way no one saw coming. This fall, as the country responds to the challenge of a second wave and we continue along our slow path to recovery, we face some harsh economic realities that will undoubtedly impact professional associations across the country—deficits, bankruptcies, and unemployment. Across the board, belt-tightening is required.

Right now, your members are evaluating their expenses and fighting for their budgets. And professional memberships are on the chopping block.

Meanwhile, you’ve had to adjust your typical approach to engaging and communicating with members. Perhaps you’ve had to cancel events, delay outreach to governments or other stakeholders, and quickly ramp-up your virtual offerings.

How have you adapted to our new normal? Have you remained connected with members? Are you aware of their perceptions and expectations? Can you meet them?

NATIONAL has worked with a variety of organizations this year, including those that are member-based, to transition their approach so they can continue to be effective in their communications and engagement plans.

Together, we’ve learned changing times dictate changing approaches to member communications and engagement. And more specifically, our shared experience has given us insight into the “must do wells” for 2020 that are fast becoming the mark of communications best practice.

So, how are the best professional associations demonstrating and delivering real, tangible member value in spite of this year’s challenges?

1. They’re taking the time to check in with their members, employees, and stakeholders

When you’re facing change, it’s critical to check in with your audience. We all know the rapidly changing landscape has had an impact on your members. The question is: how much? Have priorities or values changed? What are your members thinking, feeling, and doing? If you don’t ask, you won’t know—which means the important perspectives of members, employees, and stakeholders are left out of planning and priority setting.

We know engagement is the emotional connection members have with an organization, so it is important to check in with them, listen to them, and engage them in the process of providing feedback. Done well, you’ll be left with an uptick in engagement—and members who are more likely to feel valued, participate, and remain engaged long after the crisis has passed.

2. They’re hosting virtual meetings and events that are a cut above the rest

The bar has been raised when it comes to hosting virtual meetings. As it currently stands, good sound, lighting, and Wi-Fi are the baseline. Now, organizations need to be thinking about how to create a high level of interest and engagement for virtual meetings and events. Content is important—what are you saying, who is saying it, and what’s the interactive experience? In the virtual space, listening is as important as a strong delivery and ensuring your message is reaching each and every participant in a way that is compelling and meaningful.

3. They’re continuing to work with the media to craft their message, boost their visibility, and safeguard their relevancy and reputations

In a news cycle dominated by the pandemic, economic fallout, elections and protests, pitching and securing media coverage is akin to threading a needle. But being proactive is as, if not more, essential than ever before in creating a two-way flow of information between your association and the news media. The more proactive you are over time, the better your relationships will be and the more you’ll understand the environment and daily pressures of today’s working journalist. And both that enhanced understanding and relationships are transferable, creating value for your members.

4. They’re continuing to generate awareness and build understanding and support for the issues that matter to members, through (digital) advocacy

Digital advocacy leapfrogged ahead in 2020 as organizations embraced it more than ever out of necessity. Your story, your advocates, and your opposition are all taking shape online, with or without your participation.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that rallying to change the status quo is top of mind. Some advocacy partners we work with are seeing record rates of advocacy activity. Activists are energized and will take action. It is a good time to ask people to act.

While all of the above and the implied actions are true, we can't forget that people are tired, overwhelmed, and facing challenges they have never met before. As we look to the winter ahead, commitments to lead with purpose, meet people where they are, create space, demonstrate value, and to openly and consistently communicate will be serve us all well.

We hope these best practices in communication and engagement helps your own planning as governments, interest groups and associations continue to respond and position themselves at a very unique time. The 2020s will give rise to more challenge and opportunity to many aspects of communication—advocacy and creating value for members is no exception.

This article is based on a presentation delivered to Unprecedented, the 2020 virtual conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executive.

——— Anne McInerney is a former Associate Vice-President at NATIONAL Public Relations

——— Tara Wickwire is a former Associate Vice-President at NATIONAL Public Relations