Trade Association Business People

Trade Associations: Breaking Bland

Trade Associations have a structural problem when it comes to PR. Getting timely agreement to say anything that is not just bland.

I once e-mailed a Brussels journalist friend to compliment his choice of quote from a trade association in an article he had written about a controversial European Commission ruling.

Trade Associations Brussels

There are hundreds of trade associations in Brussels that struggle to get their voice heard

In response he wrote:

‘Their press stuff is rubbish. I harvested it from their submission to the Commission consultation, which no one expects a journalist to read. I was just fed up by the bland stuff all these groups spoon feed us’.

Trade Associations: hampered by structural challenges

And herein lies the problem particularly here in Brussels. Hampered by structural challenges including speed and disagreement among members, most Trade Associations struggle to deliver something clear, credible and concrete in a timely fashion. However, the final diluted version is often unusable for journalists, meaning they either ignore it or, as in the case above, go digging around for something juicier elsewhere.

Trade Associations Business people

Journalists get frustrated with bland comments cobbled together by committee.

Below are some tips from my own workshops and clients on how trade associations (both at a national and EU level) can get agreement on sticky’ media messages.

Trade Associations: insider tips from Media Coach workshops

Be strategic
Sounds like a no-brainer. It’s not. If you want to make an impact with your message then the person doing communication at the trade association needs to be empowered by the Secretary General to act strategically, and not just be a service provider for colleagues who want a fact sheet printed.

Get the board involved early
Work with visionary board members to identify broad socio-economic issues that go beyond narrow sectoral interests and disagreements over positions. Invite them to take part in dedicated messaging sessions and get them to own and sell the outcome to their peers.

Think big
This may be controversial but I would try to avoid messaging positions/narrow reactions to legislative changes. It’s boring, technical and usually ends up having to be watered down to mask internal divisions.  You may be the two people Euro Widget Association but you should still try to aim big, inclusive and visionary and to link the messages to bigger issues that have a societal dimension. As Simon Sinek argues in his Golden Circles talk, the most successful communicators are those who can explain at a very fundamental level of ‘why’ they do what they do and why it matters.

Don’t confuse being interesting with being provocative.

A good message is clear, succinct and uses language, numbers and examples in interesting ways. This does not mean resorting to hyperbole. As EurActiv journalist James Crisp noted in a recent blog: if a piece of legislation is likely to be damaging, then use the word damaging. But if it’s not going to destroy the sector, then don’t say that it will. No one will believe you and you’ll look silly.

These are just some thoughts.

What’s worked for you?


Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

stories at work

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?