It can be tempting for associations to weigh in on a national tragedy, but before they do, they should consider if the response is built around their legislative agenda or a long-standing position.
Following the devastating Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12, various law enforcement associations began releasing statements and pushing policy issues.
The National Association of Police Organizations lobbied for an easing of restrictions on the Pentagon’s 1033 program that shifts military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The National Sheriffs’ Association supported similar efforts.
Meanwhile, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued statements first memorializing the victims and then backed a move in Washington, DC, to block those on a federal terrorist watch list from receiving firearms.
But balancing sensitivity with activism required forethought.
Given the controversies surrounding the potentially terrorist-linked attack, Executive Director Vincent Talucci was thankful IACP had a response plan in place.
The process begins with “typically making sure we understand the situation before saying anything,” he said. “Our goal is putting out, initially, a statement of support or acknowledgment and understanding that, as an international association, unfortunately, these crimes and acts don’t have borders.”
IACP members are well-versed in crisis response. Still, there are lessons to be learned.
First, said Talucci, is for associations to have a solid legislative agenda built around volunteer involvement. Make sure there’s infrastructure: members and staff monitoring the news and discussing potential responses. Lastly, ensure any statements or activism efforts reflect previous positions.
For example, IACP’s backing of legislation barring suspected terrorists from firearms predated Orlando by months.
“I think the position is the position, from any given instance when something may have occurred, like in Orlando,” Talucci said. “Having those resolutions, having our legislative agenda, really grounds us in the concept and the practice, whether to support or to not support. It’s not driven by an incident; it gives us the ability to be deliberate and thoughtful.”
And that’s a model for any association, said Robert Hay Jr., CAE, of PAI Management, an association management company that specializes in assisting professional societies. Have policies in place and stick to them. Employ a crisis-response team. And practice, practice, practice, he said.
Is there a risk to pushing policy goals following a crisis? There could be, but associations can respond to potential criticism by pointing to a broad set of longstanding goals, Hay said.
Do law enforcement groups want to develop a position specific to nightclub shootings? Probably not, he said, but weapons laws are another matter.
“Having a policy on gun violence or weapons in the public makes it a lot easier to respond to a situation such as what happened in Orlando,” said Hay. “You have a short period to act. … Why is your association taking action on this issue?”
Most of all, if you don’t have a preexisting policy goal you can link to, resist the urge to weigh in to whatever debate emerges.
“You could be doing more harm than good,” Hay said.