I have two questions for you. Does your chamber play an important role in your community’s success? Do you think ALL of your members and others in the community have a clear understanding of how you are helping your community succeed?
Many chambers would answer “no” to that second question. But a resounding “yes” is exactly what you need to maintain relevance and retain members for the life.
So where’s the disconnect? You’re doing great work, but some of your members just aren’t getting it. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Well, I hate to break the news to you, but the problem is not them. It’s you.
Please indulge me while I reference a classic line from Cool Hand Luke…
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Prioritize Internal Communication
If you want to deliver effective external communications you must be communicating well internally.
It’s very important that your staff, particularly the membership team, knows everything that’s going on that can have an impact on the membership. The membership team often represents the frontline of the chamber. They are the faces of the organization, interacting with members one-on-one.
But sometimes they don’t have all of the information they need to answer questions, share exciting news and generally keep members well informed. It is often just a classic case of omission. It can be innocent enough. Serving your members is “all in a day’s work.” When you are caught up in the daily grind, it can be easy to forget how meaningful what you are doing truly is. What you may think is routine, could be big news to your members.
Too often though, the scenario is something far more harmful and difficult to solve. I am talking about silos. Staff members or even full departments may purposely withhold information because, for some reason, they feel it is theirs and not something to be shared. If you have silos, it is time to get rid of them. The only way to effectively destroy them is an edict (and continual management of the situation) from the top. CEOs and E-Ds – it has to come from you.
Don’t Hold Back
Silos have a strong tendency to develop around economic development and advocacy issues.
Sometimes advocacy issues are delicate and the staff responsible are very protective and controlling of the language that’s used to describe the chamber’s point of view. Understandable, but the solution is not to withhold information. Members will have questions. Instead, arm the rest of the team with the right language to answer them.
On economic development – it’s important for economic development projects to maintain confidentiality, but once those projects are ready to be announced, you need to be ready to let your members know. These are successes that tie back to your mission and tell the world that your chamber is doing great things in the community.
I’ll give an example. I was working with with a chamber that’s main communication tool for announcing economic development successes was a targeted email to a select group of members – essentially high level investors.
The second method they used for announcing their economic development successes was to distribute a news release to local media. Obviously a big omission there. It is a great idea to be sharing economic development news with high level investors, but what about the rest of the membership?
This chamber was depending on a third party – media outlets – to get that information to their members. We’re talking about a large chunk of their members. Fewer than 10% of their members were on that targeted email list.
News releases and other mass media outreach are a great idea and should be part of your communications plan, but you have a direct line to your members. Use it. The missing piece for this chamber was a communication tool that delivered economic development news to the broader chamber audience – something that communicated the impact of big-picture economic development activity on the overall health of the local economy.
They Should Hear It From You
Economic development successes are exactly the kind of thing that you want to be communicating to your members. Don’t depend on someone else to do it for you. Especially a media outlet. You can’t control that message, you can’t guarantee they will cover it. And if it is covered, you will have no idea if your members will see it.
Also, don’t assume that you know best about who should be receiving what information. By sending economic development successes only to high-level investors, this chamber was making the assumption that the remaining 90% of their members didn’t care about economic development. Not the case at all. In the research that we did, the message was clear back to us, the majority of members did care, and placed a high priority on the chamber’s role as a business advocate and as a key player in economic development.
By failing to communicate those successes to the general membership, this chamber was missing a significant opportunity to reinforce the chamber’s relevance to the entire membership.
It’s Time To Tell Your Story
Chambers are notorious for trying to stay out of the limelight. While humility is certainly a virtue, your members are never going to know what you’re doing for them unless you tell them. Gone are the days of businesses joining the chamber to be perceived as good citizens. They want value. They want to know what you are doing to for them. Celebrate your successes – loud and proud. Let all of your members know what you are doing to help their businesses and the community grow.