Friday, November 4, 2011

Associations' 15 Minutes of Fame Courtesy of Herman Cain

So even a total political non-participant like me (read: I do not vote and think politics as a whole is a crooked, crazy mess) can't help but pay a tiny bit of attention to this Herman Cain thing because of the association tie-in. I mean, seriously--how often do associations get huge news coverage that talks about governance, staffing, internal politics and more? Not too often. I constantly have to explain what an association even is, let alone the whole bit about volunteer leaders versus staff, etc. But today, there it is, above the fold in the Washington Post: an article detailing Cain's time as first head of the National Restaurant Association's board then as the association's chief executive. The article talks about the challenges of running an association, balancing the needs of staffers, board members and state associations. All real challenges for association execs, and good for the general public to know about to better understand how associations run.

But obviously the point of the article isn't to give the average person an overview of how an association exec's job works, nor just to detail the inner workings of an association. Sadly, this whole Cain scandal is shining a very unflattering light on associations--the lavish perks Cain enjoyed at the expense of members, including a lavish DC apartment, weekly first-class trips back to his wife in Omaha, schmoozing poolside and wining and dining--oh, and allegedly sexually harassing female colleagues. Hopefully not an accurate portrayal of most association execs, but there it is--the association world's latest 15 minutes of fame, and it's pretty much all bad.

Bad PR for the association industry as a whole, and especially bad for the National Restaurant Association. Their Facebook page is being slammed with complaints and demands that the women who signed confidentiality agreements in exchange for accepting (huge) monetary settlements for their sexual harrassment claims against Cain while he was head of the association be released from those agreements. Aside from being a PR and social media nightmare, it's also an association nightmare. I mean, legally, can an association even release people from confidentiality agreements that have already been executed and paid? Is it even up to the association to decide to release the women from the agreements? Not being either an executive, a lawyer or a CAE, I don't know the answer to that question...all I do know is that I don't envy the job of the social media or PR people at the National Restaurant Association right now.

I'm sure the posts are coming--if not already out there--about how the National Restaurant Association is failing in terms of crisis response to this situation. They are still posting to their Facebook page--but not about Cain. They are not responding to any questions or comments. As a fellow association social media person, I get it. Sticky situation, social media person not empowered to act or speak on behalf of the organization, this is a VERY sticky legal situation and not something they're allowed to comment on--from their POV, I get that and I sympathize. But it doesn't change the reality that social media is a give and take proposition. An association, company, brand, person--you name it--can't launch a Facebook page just to tick the "we have a Facebook page" box and not be prepared to deal with situations like these. Situations like these happen--this is happening right now. And unfortunately in terms of social media, the association is getting an F in terms of handling the crisis.

At the VERY LEAST, a canned statement about how they're working on it, discussing with lawyers, can't comment, appreciate the input, SOMETHING...anything would be better than what they're doing which is worse than nothing: continuing to post to the page but not anything about the Cain situation. At the barest minimum, just abandon the freaking page while you're waiting this situation out. Continuing to spit out daily posts like "Industry posts more job growth, figures show" (today), "SFCI pilot program at ATL airport wins green award" (yesterday) and "Illinois Dennys franchisee dishes up conservation" (Wednesday) is just adding insult to injury. It's like blurting out "how about them Redskins?" at a funeral or something. If you have to go to radio silence because the situation demands it, that's understandable, if not great...but silence is better than nervous chatter that nobody cares about right now.

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