Striking the right
balance between what your members really want, what you can actually deliver,
and your association leadership’s expectations is the key to a successful media
By Vanessa St. Gerard
Dwindling budgets and staff reductions have taken their toll
on associations in recent years, but expectations remain high for the quality
and quantity of work produced by publications and communications departments on
behalf of the members they serve.
Striking the right balance between managing these
expectations and producing valuable and relevant member benefits is indeed a
challenge. Yet media and publishing staff—as small as they might be—are
succeeding, and three panelists shared their best practices during an April 27th
Washington, DC Association Media & Publishing Lunch & Learn titled,
"Small Association Staff: Managing the Media Mix.”
The biggest takeaway for the audience, the vast majority of whom
work in departments comprised of four or fewer staff, is to assess and rethink
the association’s offerings. Christopher Murphy, senior director of publications
for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said he surveyed members to
determine their support for NAFSA’s various publications. What he found was
that there was low support for the association’s print newsletter, better
support for the e-newsletter, and good support for the magazine.
Murphy suggested eliminating projects you can’t do well or
cost too much (especially when you’re short-staffed), and instead, invest in
the areas that your research shows have potential. In his case, that meant doing
away with the print newsletter as well as discontinuing a number of book titles
that weren’t selling.
Cheryl Sadowski, vice president of communications for the
Newspaper Association of America (NAA), also evaluated her association’s
offerings to make sure that her department’s work aligned with NAA’s strategic
priorities of business development, public policy, and external communications.
"‘Do more with less’ seems to be the accepted mantra,” she said, but suggested a
better mantra is "do less with less but do it better.”
Sadowski’s analysis resulted in a more streamlined NAA website,
a consolidated social media presence, the elimination of the print magazine,
and the creation of two e-newsletters, all of which the department’s staff of
five can more easily and effectively handle. She also has established good-faith
agreements with other departments to ensure that the communications department
isn’t inundated with requests. For example, if another department wants to send
out messaging to members, the communications team will provide a template, but
the other department must provide the content and drive the communication itself.
If it’s a graphic designer that you’re lacking, outsourcing
projects to a design firm is an option worth considering. Not only can these
firms provide art direction, but also they can help associations manage various
vendors and reduce printing or production costs, said Sung Hee Kim, founder and
creative director of the design firm Sagetopia.
Kim says firms can typically provide any of the work that a
small association staff cannot handle such as requesting print bids,
coordinating with the mail house, providing assistance to in-house designers,
and evaluating different paper weights and sizes to ensure a project remains
within budget. "Design firms understand how to fit projects with the right
vendors. They can act as your project manager during your busier periods,” she
As you evaluate your overall strategy, Murphy also offered
Invest in good people;
Do research (e.g., member surveys);
Continually reevaluate existing products and eliminate
those that are not performing well;
Outsource effectively; and
Be selective in the projects you take on.
Don’t Forget the
The key to executing your new plan is to get buy-in from
your organization’s leadership. Both Murphy and Sadowski said that results from
your research will help to support your case. "Most association CEOs don’t care
what your opinion is; they want to see the evidence,” Murphy said. "Management
always loves to see numbers,” Sadowski added. In addition to member survey
results, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, making sure to include staff time, on
the projects in question.
"I believe the only thing that can wholly address the small
association/small staff paradigm is a top-down understanding of the goals that
you’re pursuing and why,” Sadowski said. "One of the most important things is
that your organization’s leadership needs to be on the same page with you.”
Vanessa St. Gerard is
managing editor, National Association of Elementary School Principals. Association
Media & Publishing thanks her for volunteering to cover this Lunch &
Learn for our members who were unable to attend.