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?