Leading During an Epidemic: Communicating With Staff and Members

COVID-19 has placed new pressures on association leaders. How do you communicate with staff and members? What do you hold off on or prioritize? Three CEOs share their stories.

“The biggest challenge is there’s so many uncertainties,” says Bill Schankel, CAE, interim CEO of NAFA, an association of vehicle fleet managers.

He’s talking about the coronavirus epidemic, of course, and his concern is a common one among association executives lately. How do you effectively communicate your response to the crisis with staff, members, and other stakeholders? What messages are important to send—and shut down? How can you effectively plan ahead when the ground seems to be shifting daily, if not hourly?

In the days since group events were canceled en masse, stronger travel restrictions were implemented, and social distancing became the new normal, the leaders I’ve spoken with have been doing as much listening as communicating. Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expos (IAFE), told me last Monday that her personal phone hasn’t stopped ringing with calls from members in an industry that’s been hit particularly hard.

“Our business is very unique—employees are often families—and they’re just at the breaking point because they’re going to have to lay off family,” she says. “I heard that from three fairs today in three different parts of the country. What we’re trying to do is be a voice of calm when we can and stay on top of information as we can.”

What we’re trying to do is be a voice of calm when we can and stay on top of information as we can.

The hunger to connect is acute. Last week, IAFE announced a virtual roundtable for members to discuss concerns and share resources; attendance was limited to 100 people and hit capacity in a matter of hours. Similarly, NAFA held a virtual town hall meeting last week that was designed to let members voice their concerns on pressing issues, particularly around the association postponing its largest conference to September. The organization is preparing to host more such events and to move more education related to its certification online if need be.

“The timing is good in that our learning management system just went live in the fall, so we can actually provide a lot of content online,” says Schankel. “We streamlined our other communications so we can provide a much more direct communication to all of our members, and we’re going to have things like this town hall on a pretty regular basis.”

In the ever-changing landscape brought on by coronavirus, leaders have had to triage their communication priorities. Nobody right now wants to help crowdsource content for IAFE’s annual convention in November; nobody wants to discuss their tradeshow contract. “[Staffers] said we need to get engaged, and I said, no, we don’t,” says Calico. “We need to let people think. We have got to push everything back.”

Some things, though, get pushed right up front. School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague, CAE, has spent recent weeks hustling on legislative issues relating to free and reduced school lunch recipients in response to mass school closures. As those closures accelerated in the past two weeks, SNA was talking with congressional and USDA staffers to advocate for expanded school lunch programs and loosening restrictions that are needlessly prohibitive at the moment, such as that the meals be consumed onsite.

“We were saying that we have to give the kids more food to take home because what happens if everything shuts down and we’d all get quarantined and can’t go out of our houses?” says Montague.

It’s not really a what-if anymore, of course. And that’s true of association staffs as much as anybody else. Now that staff teams are working from home, a lot of the typical group-cohesion tactics are no longer in play. So much for leadership-by-walking-around; see you later, weekly office check-ins. Montague, for her part, has made it a point to email her staff every day at the end of the day with an update on SNA’s work that emphasizes the successes of its members and partners. “I like them to see the bigger picture and the good work we’re doing,” she says.

But working with a distributed staff and a serious health risk means keeping closer tabs on what skills the association has on hand. Last week, SNA began assembling a spreadsheet listing which staffers handle particular tasks—IT issues, for instance, or social media—and who can pick them up should a lead staffer fall ill. “We’re trying to identify [these roles] because statistically, somebody on staff is going to get sick,” Montague says.

Aside from that, all that Montague or any association leader can do is try to get comfortable with a lot of unknowns. “It’s not knowing,” she says when I ask what the hardest part is about leading during this time. “I like to know.”

For the foreseeable future, I hope to feature the work that association executives are doing to lead during the pandemic. What new challenges are you facing? What principles have stayed the same? What works? If you have a story to share, please email me: mathitakis@asaecenter.org


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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