Corporate partnerships, event sponsorships, patron members, and research project clients are sometimes the income staple of industry associations. While these affiliations bode well for the budget, the associated reputational risks sometimes outweigh the financial benefit.
Reputation isn’t based on internal intentions, but rather on perceptions formed by outsiders. These perceptions are guided in part by both factual and anecdotal information, and influenced further by each individual’s convictions and experiences.
As people habitually make decisions based on subjective perceptions rather than objective truth, the reputation of one brand is easily transferred to an affiliated party. This transference of reputation might hold great danger for the lesser-known brand – usually the association.
Few realise the immense reputational influence of affiliations on industry associations. In our experience assisting associations with their PR and reputation management, we’ve identified two major reputation dangers that associations must actively manage:
DANGER 1: The association is siding with wrongdoers
During a recent national crisis an association was accused by mass media of protecting a public sector agency. This accusation was based merely on the membership status of the agency (as listed on the website of the association). Even though there was no truth to substantiate the accusation, the reputation of the association was still called into question.
There are also numerous reports on social media and review sites such as HelloPeter.com that link associations with members accused of less desirable conduct. Most readers of those sites will immediately form a perception of the association as a whole. This perception will not be based on the actions of the association, but simply on the mention of the connection between the accused member and the association.
There is no need for associations to hide the affiliation with members or sponsors that do not have a sterling reputation. It is however of crucial importance that the terms of the relationship be available immediately and in language that clarifies the position of the association. Merely stating the benefits a member or sponsor is entitled to isn’t enough. It needs to be clear that awarding membership or affiliation status does not imply or award any form of endorsement of products, services, or conduct. In addition, contact details for information requests placed on the same page as the membership listing, can be very helpful in providing information to guide perceptions.
DANGER 2: The association is influenced by a specific corporate brand
The active and ongoing participation of a small number of corporate brands might seem like a dream come true for associations that depend on sponsorships as an integral revenue stream. The danger arises when one brand finds it easier to participate more often, and on a larger scale than others.
Seeing a specific corporate logo displayed every year across a variety of material or events produced by an association can create a perception that the association is co-branded, and therefore co-managed.
These assumptions are usually raised when least expected, and – contrary to popular belief – responding with the facts might not make much difference to the assumption. It is more effective to proactively steer clear from fueling assumptions by allowing feedback and insight from various viewpoints to highlight potential areas of risk and guide decisions.
The best longterm strategy to manage this particular danger is to ensure that the team promoting sponsorship has a substantial database to promote to, rather than relying on the recurring involvement of only a few. While repetitive support is the easiest to secure, the reputational risk might end up costing more.
Many successful people have famously hailed reputation as their greatest asset. It is however one of the hardest things for associations to manage as it takes a single minded focus on weighing up financial gains with potential reputational damage. It is for this reason that the reputation management of an association can not be left solely to the marketing department, but needs to be driven by strategic leadership.