Why Associations Shouldn’t Be Sidelined By Bad Press

In the wake of the Nike shoe blowout during an NCAA game, a public relations expert says associations shouldn’t run from negative publicity, but instead use it as an opportunity to show members their value.

Immediately after Duke basketball star Zion Williamson’s Nike shoe ripped apart during a nationally televised game against rival North Carolina, commentators and fans began doling out blame, finding fault with everyone from Nike to the National College Athletic Association.

While Nike released a statement saying they were working to identify the issue, the NCAA has kept mum and Duke has said little. Public relations expert Adele Cehrs says this incident can serve as a teaching moment on how associations should respond when they or even their industry partners face bad press.

“You can come out turning a crisis into an opportunity,” said Cehrs, founder and CEO of public relations and marketing firm Epic. “It is up to you as an association executive to reassure your members that you have your finger on the pulse of what is happening now. Say something like, ‘We’re following this closely, and we’ll let you know if this is something that impacts the industry.’”

However, what Cehrs suggests is not what most organizations do. “So many associations shy away and don’t say anything,” she said. “It’s based in fear. Fear of retribution, fear of the board reacting one way or another, fear of the backlash. Associations are really, really cautious. But this is a time when you can be most relevant for your members.”

For associations concerned about speaking out, they should remember don’t have to be the ones talking. “One way they could do it would be to facilitate a discussion with an expert. An outside expert, someone who can talk about the issue, who can answer questions, who can shed some light, especially if there is fear in the member community,” Cehrs said. “They’re giving their members the outlet to discuss something that can be of concern.”

Being Prepared Isn’t Just for Scouts

When negative publicity strikes, Cehrs say associations can show members their value by speaking out quickly. But she’s not suggesting an ad-lib approach. Rather, she’s suggesting they follow what coaches have: a game plan.

“I hate to call it a crisis plan,” Cehrs said. “It’s an opportunity plan. When you are prepared, you are in so much more of a position to respond quickly and effectively.”

While it would have been difficult to predict a shoe by your industry partner malfunctioning during a game, Cehrs said that associations can make general plans.

“Pick three to five topics that are important to your members and then run it though and know you can respond,” she said. During the preparation stage is when people can get feedback from the board, committees, or the c-suite. “You have to get buy-in,” she said. “But you can’t wait to do that until the issue happens.”

When associations show their relevance by responding quickly to issues, members notice. “They think, ‘My association really has my back; they’re thinking of us. I’m going to renew,’” Cehrs said.

Duke player Zion Williamson, center, found himself at the center of Nike's bad press last week. (via Duke Basketball's Facebook page)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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