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How Associations Have Reframed Their Messaging in the Wake of Coronavirus

The marketing and communications teams who run point on messaging within associations have one objective and one objective only: painting the best picture of their organization. They’re firing off emails, articles, tweets—you name it—year-round to keep their audiences in the know and engaged. They often plan their messaging strategies and calendars quarters and even years ahead.

In an industry full of professionals who always know what’s coming next, what happens in a year like 2020? Most of us didn’t have plans in place for a global pandemic or it’s sweeping effects. In the association space, where advocating for industries and members is foundational, these effects are certainly felt.

Adjusting your communications plan when your business-as-usual is no longer appropriate is a heavy lift.”

Adjusting your communications plan when your business-as-usual is no longer appropriate is a heavy lift. In most cases, associations had to shift to providing special resources and information to their members in the wake of the virus. Nearly every association featured a “coronavirus alert bar” along the top of their website to point visitors to guides and reports for weathering the storm. There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic in some way and every association has had to figure out what support looks like.

We (virtually) sat down with six associations to hear about how they’ve shifted their messaging in these uncertain times.

In what ways did you alter or reframe your organization’s messaging in the midst of the pandemic?

Overwhelmingly, these associations shared the sentiment that if the message wasn’t directly helpful to their members in the context of COVID-19, it was tone-deaf. It was also beneficial to conduct research in order to gain insight into what was happening on the ground. Some organizations, like the American Library Association (ALA), found that they didn’t necessarily have to change what they were saying, but how they were saying it:

“The pandemic has an enormous impact on our profession and industry. In early April, one of the divisions of ALA did a significant survey and, at the time, the results were that 98 percent of public libraries surveyed were closed. Generally, our public messaging is to visit your library, with an end goal of getting people to get library cards, use libraries, and understand why libraries are an important part of the community. We could no longer say that while the world was changing and libraries were closing. It was a huge shift for us.

In the same survey, we saw evidence that libraries were pivoting to online services, doing online storytimes and stepping up their digital offerings and digital checkouts. So we were still able to say ‘visit your library’, but we pivoted to ‘visit your library online’. All of our messaging is still true. We believe deeply in the power of libraries and they’re demonstrating that power right now. They’re doing incredible work in their communities.”

- Stephanie Hlywak, Director, Communications and Marketing Office, American Library Association

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For other associations, the shift was more drastic. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) had to formulate new messaging for the 6,000+ physicians, clinicians, and associated professionals in the field of addiction medicine that they represent:

“As the pandemic unfolds in the United States, two themes come to mind. The first is this idea of global versus local. While the pandemic was certainly global, its manifestations were local, especially in a country this big. Not every part of the U.S. is experiencing the same thing at the same time. For better or for worse, the provision of healthcare in the U.S. is somewhat fragmented. Different regions have different resources and are under different regulations. So in response to that, we increased the frequency of our state chapter calls. This was to find out how different hotspots were dealing with the surge of COVID patients and figure out how local policies were affecting those areas. We also wanted to know which cities or states were asking that all office visits be canceled. That matters in addiction because some treatments have to be administered by a clinician in person once a day.

The second theme that I thought was interesting for our messaging was, instead of ‘COVID is happening to us’, we wanted the message to be that ‘ASAM is fighting COVID’. We emphasized hopeful messages and visual images. We highlighted our physicians as heroes and as part of the solution. We wanted to create a message around strong resolve—that we were going to take care of our patients even through the pandemic. Even if that means switching over to telehealth. Even if that means wearing gowns, masks, and gloves. We had experts talk to the media about how the profession of addiction medicine is rising to the dual challenge of COVID-19 and addiction, which is chronic and really tough to treat.”

- Julia Cheng, CEO, American Society of Addiction Medicine

Did you release any pandemic-specific messaging to your audiences (e.g. a well-wishes email, helpful tools, resources, etc.)? If so, what did that look like?

Across the board, the associations we spoke with had some sort of special communication about the pandemic through an existing, repurposed, or new channel. The most consistent emphasis was on keeping members as informed and connected as possible through the many facets of a global pandemic.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) works to expand access to a proven person-centered model for healthcare—one that provides patients and their loved ones with comfort, peace, and dignity during life’s most intimate and vulnerable experiences:

“We created a special social media campaign for the hospice and palliative care community. Early on, we saw that clinicians who were on the frontlines were sharing photos of themselves in masks and sharing stories of what they were going through while providing care. So we created the ‘Faces of Caring’ campaign where hospice and palliative care teams could submit photos and stories on our website or share on their own personal or organization channels. We created the hashtag #HAPCFacesofCaring. We noticed that hospice and palliative care workers were so excited about it. It allowed them to see what their peers were going through across the country and to understand that they weren’t alone.”

- Amanda Bow, Senior Director, Communications & Digital Strategy, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

the #HAPCFacesofCaring campaign on social media
The #HAPCFacesofCaring campaign highlights hospice and palliative care workers across the country.

In another approach, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) wanted to help as many school leaders as possible—even those outside of their membership:

“We wanted to make sure folks knew we were there and continuing to work with them. We value our membership base and wanted to reach beyond to any principal who has interacted with us in any way to expand the audience. Everyone is in crisis and we wanted to make ourselves available however we could. We created a 6-part weekly email series with updates and acknowledgments from our executive director, telling principals how inspired we are by them. What principals were doing was really heroic. They were the ones making sure that kids were okay and being fed. A lot of meals that lower-income kids were receiving were coming through their schools, and that couldn’t stop. Many of their schools became food distribution centers. When they weren’t distributing food, they were putting meals on buses. We wanted them to know that we saw them. We also took some time to talk about what NASSP is doing on their behalf, like the advocacy efforts we’re involved in.”

- Bob Farrace, Director, Communications, National Association of Secondary School Principals

Did you offer any special concessions to your audiences (e.g. membership extension, free webinars/events, free tools, etc.)? If so, what did that look like?

The American Bus Association (ABA) works to maximize the success of bus, tour, and travel members. It’s not difficult to imagine how hard their members have been hit during this pandemic. With hotels, tourist attractions, and general travel closed or limited, times are tough. It’s important for associations to take their members’ current needs into consideration to account for longevity:

“We extended the membership grace period. It’s not even something to brag about. You have to do it because [our members] don’t have anything going on right now, let alone sending us a check. We also extended installment payments for companies who would like it for their membership. We also gave them a substantial discount on next year’s renewal. It’s going to take a year for them to bounce back, and that’s if all goes well. Our board approved a substantial discount, so we’re doing what we can to take care of them in every way. You have to be open to other things. This is the perfect time for strategic priorities. In our case and for a lot of other associations, government affairs is the most important department during this time. You need as many members in your corner to support you in what you’re trying to accomplish, and the more members the better. On the membership side, we actually recruited more members during this time to get them on board so they could see the value. We’re out there fighting for them and we want them to know that.”

- Lia Zegeye, Senior Director of Membership, American Bus Association

In some cases, essential and timely resources were offered to members that were centered on the pandemic. The American Counseling Association (ACA) has largely had to shift their messaging to the effects of a global pandemic on mental health:

“Our public messaging is about what value counselors can bring, even though it is already known. The pandemic is significant, and we wanted to help people see that the loneliness, grief, and anxiety are things that counselors are talented in supporting people through. When it came to our members and counselors, the message became about self-care and how to take care of yourself when helping others.

We have to gird ourselves for a drop while redoubling our efforts to make ourselves indispensable to our audiences and to communicate that we are indispensable.”

To be responsive to our counselors who we didn’t know how the pandemic was impacting their incomes, we extended their benefits for 90 days or anyone whose membership was expiring in April, May, or June so they wouldn’t be cut off from those resources. We also offered 15 continuing education courses for counselors on topics related to COVID that was very well received.”

- Tiffany Erickson, Chief Communications and Engagement Officer, American Counseling Association

Were there any specific campaigns or pieces of communication that you had to immediately pause?

The responses here indicate the same reason these associations had to change their messaging to begin with—what they were saying was no longer appropriate. In this era of social distancing, plenty of organizations are having to either cancel, reschedule, or virtually adapt their major conferences. That was the case for ASAM:

“We were all set to hold our huge annual conference that we hold every April. We were expecting over 2000 people to show up in Denver for a multi-day event. We had to halt all previously planned messaging that was geared towards our members’ excitement and enthusiasm for a live event where everyone gets to connect with each other. That was a halt, and then we had to get the word out that we were going virtual.”

- Julia Cheng, CEO, American Society of Addiction Medicine

It’s the same story for NHPCO, who used their newly-virtual event as an opportunity to scale it:

“We had a national conference that was supposed to be in the D.C. area in March that we had to cancel. We also made our fall conference virtual. It was originally a three-day event in Little Rock, and now it’s a three-week event. There will be pre-recorded sessions and live keynotes, once a week, along with happy hours and networking opportunities. We turned it into this virtual event that we hope attracts a lot of people.”

- Amanda Bow, Senior Director, Communications & Digital Strategy, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

Many associations have found that switching to a virtual event has given them higher attendance numbers overall, even if the fees for attendance have been reduced.

What were some challenges you faced or continue to face (e.g. reduced budget, limited resources, limited (wo)manpower, etc.)?

While mission-driven organizations might put the focus on their members during a time like this, they’re not immune from the pandemic’s immediate realities. And for some, it’s all tied together. NASSP, like many associations, are being as proactive as possible about what may come down the line:

“You can always use more help and money, but I can’t say those were our biggest challenges. It was really our reaching consensus on the priorities. We discovered and understood pretty quickly that there is an audience whose mind is just somewhere else right now. We were able to face those challenges and make changes fairly quickly. The budget implications haven’t hit us yet, but we know that as school districts are going into their next budget cycles, there is going to be less money available to them for things like honor societies and professional development opportunities. All of those things are on the chopping block. We have to gird ourselves for a drop while redoubling our efforts to make ourselves indispensable to our audiences and to communicate that we are indispensable. Most of our members have dues paid through their local school districts. So we need to continue to convince districts that NASSP is an organization worth investing in on behalf of their principals. Securing funding is also an ongoing priority. It’s very clear that schools will not open without a significant infusion of dollars from the federal government.”

- Bob Farrace, Director, Communications, National Association of Secondary School Principals

What do you think will be your most pressing challenge for the rest of this year?

ALA is bracing for what may happen through the rest of this year and what lies beyond. Securing funding is the main priority for many of the associations we spoke with, as it’s a key indicator for the long-term health of their members and their organizations:

“We’re still in the middle of this, maybe even the beginning. We know that librarians and libraries are funded by their local communities and municipalities’ tax revenue, and in the case of school and academic libraries they are connected to their parent institutions. The funding model means that libraries and their staffing and services will be impacted by the larger economic slowdown. Our advocacy work is focused on getting libraries included in federal recovery packages and consistently telling library success stories.

We’re up against every other industry in America advocating for the same funds. It’s our job as an association to say that libraries will be partners in recovery and we need them now more than ever. People go to libraries during recovery. It’s where they fill out forms for unemployment, look for jobs, gain computer access, and get new skills and training. As remote learning continues, digital access will be increasingly important for large numbers of people who don’t have broadband at home.”

- Stephanie Hlywak, Director, Communications and Marketing Office, American Library Association

ABA has similar concerns:

“Securing funding. It decides what will happen in the next year. Also, is this the last round of the pandemic? Is there another wave? Are we prepared as a society for the next phase of this? Funding is more important than ever. A lot of our members cater to student travel, which happens during this period typically. This is lost revenue, completely gone. They won’t make it up.”

- Lia Zegeye, Senior Director of Membership, American Bus Association

While this is just a small cross-section of what different organizations are facing right now, find solace in the fact that you’re not alone in this. Associations are more than ready to go to bat for their members and see them through this, and one message stands firm in all of the others: community drives solutions.

Mighty Citizen has a suite of free tools and resources to help strengthen your association, especially during this time, including a Membership Marketing Campaign Template. Head over to our tools and training to download.

A special thank you to these mighty citizens for their time, perspectives, and continued mission-driven work:

- Stephanie Hlywak, Director, Communications and Marketing Office, American Library Association

- Julia Cheng, CEO, American Society of Addiction Medicine

- Amanda Bow, Senior Director, Communications & Digital Strategy, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

- Bob Farrace, Director, Communications, National Association of Secondary School Principals

- Lia Zegeye, Senior Director of Membership, American Bus Association

- Tiffany Erickson, Chief Communications and Engagement Officer, American Counseling Association

A portion of this article was originally published for ASAE.

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