The Mark of Cain on Association Management

The last few nights I’ve watched news stories about Herman Cain and the National Restaurant Association (NRA). I can’t help thinking about the whole ugly situation through an association management lens. I’m not going to dive into the details or the political ramifications, and I certainly don’t intend to express any political opinions in this post. I’m assuming the best and the worst to get a complete picture for purely hypothetical reasons.

Imagine, instead of the NRA, this is your association. A never-ending story about one of your past CEOs (or elected volunteer leader) ends up on the nightly news. I’m sure it’s happened before, but I doubt the past CEO was running for president.

I feel bad for the NRA staff. You know everyone there is getting the third degree from their family and friends. Even though they’re in the spotlight dealing with a haunting situation from the past, work goes on — trade shows, educational sessions, publications, lobbying, research, event planning, member service – it doesn’t stop.

The story is still unfolding but I can’t wait. I keep thinking about all the issues it raises. It provides an opportunity to step back and say, “What if this was us?”

Crisis management

Above all, it’s a story about crisis management and communication. I haven’t been paying close enough attention to know how the NRA has handled that, but I’m not writing about them, so it doesn’t matter for my purpose. Every PR professional and CAE candidate knows you need to have a crisis management plan, just like you need disaster recovery and business continuity plans.

You also need to be out in front when a crisis hits. With social media, it doesn’t take long for a rumor to turn into a full-blown disaster. Even if you’re not participating in social media, you better be monitoring social media. You’d think everyone would know this by now, but I’m sure there are some organizations that don’t even have Google Alerts on their name.

I can only imagine the tension at NRA. I’m sure the HR and executive teams are in constant meeting mode. How stressful. I hope, for their sakes, they’ve been as open and honest as much as their confidentiality agreements allow. We see how Cain suffered because he didn’t appear as forthcoming and transparent as he should have.

Make sure your staff is informed about their roles and responsibilities during a crisis and they know what’s at stake for the association mission and members. At NAHB we had an ugly episode: someone on staff was hounded by an angry group for his part on a non-profit board – a board completely unrelated to the homebuilding industry. We expected protests and media at our front door. I don’t recall anything awful occurring, but we were ready. Everyone was informed enough to understand the situation and reminded about what to do if approached or contacted by anyone.

Brand management

I got really peeved off by some of the coverage of the NRA, especially when a ratings-hungry commentator portrayed the NRA only as the representative of national corporations, like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. He called for viewers to boycott NRA members while showing a dozen member logos (mostly fast food) and a headshot of NRA’s CEO. I guess he doesn’t care about all the employees whose earnings depend on those chains. I’m sensitive about this because I know from personal membership experience that NRA also represents, assists and educates smaller restaurants, like the independently-owned one I used to manage.

No matter what you think about the NRA, brand identity is the issue here. Is it clear from your homepage and other online outposts who your members are? What they contribute to the economy and community? Could you appear more human? Relatable? Likeable? Don’t be an easy target for rabble-rousers.

Culture and counsel

Innocent or guilty, the fact that there were three allegations of sexual harassment has to give you pause, even if they’re all baseless. I can’t help thinking, what type of culture leads to this? Or maybe all was well and this is just a case of three messed-up work relationships and the resulting misperceptions. One commentator asked Cain if he was the kind of CEO who made awkward comments to employees and didn’t know it. For the record, he did say “no,” but seriously, would he even know?

If those allegations were true, why didn’t anyone say anything to him about how others perceived his behavior? Because he’s the boss? Bring in the board chair to counsel him.

It’s an ugly situation. Maybe someday a brave soul from the NRA will do a conference session about how they handled it and lessons learned. Yuck. I wish everyone over there a hasty return to business as usual.

What other association management lessons are you seeing in this story?

Author: deirdrereid

Deirdre is a freelance writer for companies serving the association market, who after more than 20 years in the association and restaurant industries, is enjoying the good life as a ghostblogger and content marketing writer. Away from her laptop, you can find her walking in the woods, doing yoga, going to shows, journaling, cooking, or relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book and a glass of something tasty in hand.

14 thoughts on “The Mark of Cain on Association Management”

  1. Nice job, Deidre. I’m not sure what to think about the situation but here’s what’s swirling in my mind (also from a non-political, non-partisan viewpoint):

    – The recent allegations of a boy scout coverup, the catholic priest scandal, etc. make me wonder if organizations, given the option between right and wrong, choose wrong most of the time. I don’t *know* that they do, but it seems far too often there’s been a coverup somewhere along the way. I’m not saying that’s the case with the NRA, but in your generic organization, the best preparation would be to make darn sure you took the best moral (even beyond legal) action at the time of the allegations. It’s much easier to handle a crisis if there’s nothing to cover up..

    – I blogged recently about the lessons we can take from Netflix. One that I tweeted about elsewhere but didn’t include in the blog (maybe I should have) is the “blood in the water” frenzy media, social media and society engage in without considering the wider ramifications. With regard to Netflix (which gets maybe a D+ for crisis management), I think a lot of folks would be happy to see them go out of business for making a flawed business decision – not realizing or not caring that Netflix employs more than 2000 people who have families depending on them.

    – Harassment – sexual, racial, age, disability, etc. – is clearly immoral and clearly illegal. What’s not so clear is whether it’s actually happened. Having done Employee Relations for awhile, these circumstances are truly he said/she said. Sometimes you’re like “oh yeah, clearly out of bounds,” but other times… The Huffingpost just had an article yesterday that mentioned as a many as 700,000 false domestic violence claims are made every year. So…

    – Planning for the worst is unfortunately the way to go because in the court of public opinion the damage is already done. Accusations are front page, apologies are back page.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.


    1. Thanks, Jim, for adding to the discussion, excellent points. It may seem quaint to say “honesty is the best policy” but in so many situations we look back and say, if only they had been honest from the beginning, things would have gone much better.

      This also reminds me of something I heard a corporate restaurant CEO say many times to our staff, “the difficult thing to do is usually the right thing to do.”


  2. It seems that as always there are some who for the will of some will fall on a sword, their are some who for want of greed will fall on a sword as long as they are paid, then there are a few who will lie and wait for an offer to be made for no one wants bad press. I do not know Cain nor any of the others at this point, however after fifty years of watching the political scene in our nation I find it strange that so many now come out when they would have been highly compensated twenty years ago. No this man would have been gone long ago had he done what is said. It seems that paying a complement is now cause for saying one is sexually harassed. As is being in different is also sited as cause. Guilty or not the harm is done except isn’t it strange Clinton was praised and glorified for never having had sex with that woman. black and white one wins one has a fight. I would call that media racism ….


  3. While association folk have zeroed in on the crisis management aspect of the issue, the culture of the organization (which, Dierdre, you only mentioned briefly, at the end) may be the most important part of the story.

    Do some associations, especially large trade groups, give too much power – and way too many perks – to CEOs? Do they allow the culture of their industries to permeate the association? Do they protect CEOs who are deemed more valuable than lower-level employees? Do they dismiss complaints from women?

    If you don’t do anything wrong in the first place, you are less likely to have to execute a crisis management plan.


    1. You raise some good points, David. Their reaction to the crisis is a short-term issue, although it may have long-term consequences. But culture is the larger issue, and it won’t go away. I know that many CEOs of national trade associations trade over their life to the association, so, if they’re also doing a great job, they deserve some extra compensation for that. But they also walk around in a bubble. Staff knows about and talks about the perks. They can’t relate. It’s not the greatest motivator for team spirit, we’re all in this together, well, I’m in first class, you’re in coach. Executive offices are usually untouchable. I’m sure that’s the case everywhere, not just in associations.

      I’m sure there are innovative approaches to keeping an exec’s feet on the ground, 360 review groups, perhaps, or some type of cross-level/department advisory group. I’m hoping the Cain story will cause HR and executive departments to take a scathing look at how they run business, how staff perceives them and the implications of their culture.


    2. David, I can’t help but think of your remark about power and protection in reference to the Penn State situation. Although the allegations are much more horrifying, again we have someone powerful being protected within a culture of silence. How do they live with themselves? Is it a sense of entitlement, the rules don’t apply? Ugh.


  4. Good post Diedre. Thoughtful for all of us to think about this from perspective of our organizations and what we could/should do.

    Like you, I don’t want my comments to be considered as a political commentary.

    My addition comes from a situation that should cause us all to pause.

    About 10 years ago, one of my staff had a sexual affair with the volunteer president. I had factual evidence verifying the facts. Based on our policies, I fired the staff member. She sued my AMC for unlawful dismissal.

    Upon receiving notice of the suit, I did as required and notified our AMC’s insurance carrier. And, as normal practice, the insurance company’s attorney handled the case. After about a month or so, they told me that it would be cheaper (for them) to settle the case. Didn’t matter than I was right it only mattered that the settling (paying her a year’s salary) was cheaper than going to court.

    I know of others who have been forced by insurance companies to settle even through they were “right.”

    I don’t know if this happened with regard to Cain and NRA … but, I wonder how we should be developing crisis communications plans to “handle” a case like these where the insurance company forced our association to settle … thus, making it appear that we were “guilty.”

    Would appreciate hearing from others who have been through something like this.


    1. Ugh, I’ve heard of this type of thing, that’s why I’m not making any assumptions based on a settlement. You’re right, that’s a challenging scenario that needs to be anticipated in crisis communication planning. Thanks, Steve.


  5. Yes, Steve, I had an insurance company settle a small, personal injury case involving my association because it was cheaper than fighting it, even though the person who claimed injury was totally at fault.

    The Cain issue, though is not like that and it’s not like your case either. Two people having an affair is consensual. A CEO sexually harassing employees is not.

    If I was on the Board, I’d recommend firing the guy, not dancing around trying to manage the bad press. If you do the right thing in the first place, you won’t have to defend a bad action later.


    1. But if there’s no evidence (corroboration by others), it becomes a “he said, she said” case. If you fire someone based only on the word of another, you probably would have a legal suit coming your way.

      If there is knowledge that someone is acting inappropriately, then I imagine you’d follow policy, perhaps starting with some type of counseling followed by firing if behavior doesn’t change. Of course, if the culture protects one of those people, then you deserve any bad press that comes your way. You’re broken and need to be fixed.


  6. I had hope of seeing one simple comment as follows”Power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely”. When we place all our trust in one man or woman in a group or party line we set ourselves up for a fall, for it is human nature to follow blindly we enjoy the group dynamic for we do not want to admit our faults. Clinton was guilty yet suffered no harm he was praised by all, Two wrongs do not make anything right yet we must see the hypocrisy in our ways or we venture one step closer to that precipice of doom and total lose of our freedoms.


  7. Tough choice indeed, Deirdre, Steve and David. It points out that the cheapest route isn’t always the best route. Settling can damage a brand, contesting can damage a brand – either could have long-range consequences. I guess if you run the risk of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you must as well fight for what’s right – if you can afford it.


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