When to Grease the Squeaky Wheel

By: Whitney Redding

Instead of getting cranky about the critics in your organization, it's time to embrace them. Responding to complaints productively requires strong listening skills, patience, and an understanding of how the rules of engagement are changing for associations today.

Pamela Green remembers a harrowing day early in her career when she was charged with running a nonprofit board meeting in her boss's absence. What she got was a trial by fire and a close look at what a CEO's job can be like. "At the end of the meeting, I felt beat up," says Green, now chief U.S. membership officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Just as Green was wondering how in the world she should respond to some of the criticism she was hearing, a helpful board member pulled her aside and grounded her with a dose of Plato. "He told me there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have something to say and those who just have to say something," she says.

Green has been applying that grain of salt ever since. "You learn to assess which is which," she says.

"The window of opportunity to respond is much shorter than before. You don't know what's going to start as a blog in the morning and end up on the evening news."—Brad Rawlins

Hearing, managing, and weighing whether and how to respond to criticism is a major part of any executive's job. It's also something of an art. In the association world, criticism can come from virtually any direction: members, volunteer leaders, employees, competitors, industry detractors, media, government, and the public. While that has always been true, virtually is increasingly the operative word. For better or worse, complaints and requests that once were the subjects of parking lot conversations and hand raising at annual meetings now can gain a wider audience and a greater sense of urgency thanks to the free-for-all nature of the wild, wild web.

This leaves many association leaders wondering how the rules of engagement may be changing and how best to respond when complaints do come up. Since conflict is unavoidable for any organization, how can an association respond to criticism in ways that will rebuild and even fortify its reputation for the long term?

Rules of Engagement

In addition to keeping a close ear to what is being said about them in traditional and social media, associations must invite dialog with members. "The culture of this organization is that I want to hear what's on people's minds, good, bad, or indifferent. I'm very inviting," says Jeffrey Morgan, CAE, president and CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute. "By listening and responding to them, whether they liked the answer or not, they like that they've been listened to."

When problems do occur, experts advise:

  • Avoid falling into "command and control," a leadership stance that sends the message, "It's my role, and I'm going to do it my way."
  • Keep friends close but critics even closer. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management offers a monthly conference call for members to air concerns. "Invite them to come in and sit at the table. Have a detractors' day and hear them out," says Pamela Green, SHRM's chief U.S. membership officer.
  • Become more comfortable with discord. When confronted with diverse points of view, seek to "converge the many rights," says leadership strategist Cynthia D'Amour, president of People Power Unlimited, rather than choosing one solution over another.
  • Don't get embroiled in a shouting match. "It makes members of your organization feel better that you're defending them but doesn't usually resolve anything," says Brad Rawlins, associate professor and chair of the communications department at Brigham Young University.
  • Keep a log of complaints and requests. "If it's a persistent complaint or request, we're going to address it," says Diane Scheuring, CAE, manager of member services for the Oncology Nursing Society.
  • Consider the source when establishing legitimacy of a complaint. "We also take very detailed demographics: Is this the average member of our association?" says Scheuring. "Are they a chapter president, who would represent a whole group?"
  • When it comes to habitual complainers, task them with finding solutions. "Take the spear out of their hands," says D'Amour. "If their path is to get attention, is there a way to give it to them in a more positive vein?"
  • Don't answer a critic until you're ready; instead, indicate when you will have the answer ready.
  • When in doubt about the veracity of a complaint, vet it. "I go back to poll other members. I pick up the phone," says Andrej Suskavcevic, CAE, CEO of the Commercial Finance Association.
  • Facts are your friend. When a member is dead set that the organization is going in the wrong direction, take a step back and let facts, figures, and other members take the lead. "The way to combat that is to lead from behind," says Suskavcevic.

"It comes down to authenticity," says Brad Rawlins, associate professor and chair of the communications department at Brigham Young University. "Are you simply trying to quiet critics, or are you looking at the criticism" more critically?

Then and Now

Six years ago, Clarke Price, CAE,  president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs, found himself in the center of a squall that typified how a groundswell of criticism in the association world sometimes played out before the dawn of social media. When OSCPA's board decided to reorganize the association, any positive reception among the chapters was overshadowed, at first, by pockets of strong resistance, accusations that the board's actions had been engineered by the CEO, personal attacks on the CEO's character, and an attempt to start a competing splinter group.

Throughout the ordeal, the hardest part for Price was following the advice of the state board chair and keeping his mouth shut. While he helped to shape strategy and messages behind the scenes, the state board members took it on themselves to carry the message to chapter meetings in person. "It was incredibly hard. My view is that [representing the association] is what I'm paid to do," says Price.

In retrospect, Price says, the board chair's instincts were right, because the criticism had turned emotional. No points could be scored on logic alone. "Every business has upset customers. I don't care what it is," Price says. "It's the criticisms that become more personally driven. Very often it becomes you as the association are missing the mark. You are not doing enough for me."

As challenging as OSCPA's situation was, Price suspects the brouhaha would have been worse if it had transpired more recently. The internet and, in particular, social media pose a new challenge for associations by providing a new "power tool" for anyone with an axe to grind. "It used to be that there were always association meetings and someone upset could use that forum to get other people excited," Price says. "Now with the rise of online venues … they can suddenly get a very big following that may or may not be legitimate."

For the most part, social media is a good thing for organizations. "We can use these social media tools to source, share, and distribute information in a much more decentralized and networked way," says Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, LLC and author of Trust Agents.

But as numerous recent examples attest, social media also can serve as a platform to catapult individual grievances from the sidelines to the spotlight. Consider for example, the disgruntled filmmaker Kevin Smith whose recent tweet about Southwest Airlines' seating policy for large people went viral, magnifying the complaint. "It's true that the open-ended nature of social media also means that complaints surface in the public eye and that the most negative of people can often draw the most attention in the short term. This was true before social media, only now these kinds of complaints stay frozen in time on the internet for eternity," says Brogan.

Social media also increases the speed at which complaints arise and must be addressed. "The window of opportunity to respond is much shorter than before," says Rawlins. "You don't know what's going to start as a blog in the morning and end up on the evening news."

On the upside, social media also helps organizations to gauge quickly if a complaint or criticism has struck a chord. "With a complaint that's done in a public forum, you're going to see pretty quickly if it's going to grow or not," says Jeffrey Morgan, CAE, president and CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute. "It's a matter of assessing it."

Diagnose the Squeaky Wheel

Regardless of how a negative comment surfaces—via a member's blog or a call-in line—the first challenge is to gauge how much of a response it merits.

Of course, it helps to already have contemplated who the association's major stakeholders are. In a 2006 report, "Prioritizing Stakeholders for Public Relations," (PDF) for the Institute for Public Relations, Rawlins synthesized the range of existing stakeholder management approaches to create a four-step process to help organizations prioritize stakeholders for PR purposes:

When it comes to managing constant complainers, ask probing questions, be empathetic, and repeat back for clarity. Even task them with finding solutions.

  1. Identify all potential stakeholders according to their relationship to the organization.
  2. Prioritize stakeholders by attributes, such as the level of power, legitimacy, and urgency they may have.
  3. Prioritize the stakeholders by relationship to a given situation.
  4. Prioritize the various publics the organization must reach and the right communication strategy for each.

Most important, says Rawlins, any analysis of stakeholders must be flexible enough to account for the situational nature of who is considered important and who is peripheral. For example, an association's members ordinarily are its highest-priority stakeholders, except when, for example, a government action threatens the very existence of the industry. At that point, lawmakers and the public at large likely would become equally important to address. "There's still a lot of art to that particular process. Everyone will apply it differently," he says. "Just going through the exercise may be the most valuable thing."

After establishing the relative importance of various stakeholders as a backdrop, Rawlins suggests evaluating specific complaints as they come up in regard to their nature, connection to the organization, potential impact on the organization, and veracity.

Enter the Chorus

When problems do occur—particularly internally, with members, employees or leadership—there are certain timeless rules of engagement (see sidebar, above).

Getting Social

One of the best uses for social media is to monitor what is being said about an organization. This is especially helpful if someone is intent on making negative statements about the organization.

Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, LLC and author of Trust Agents, has this advice:

  • "Build a listening station to stay tuned for such moments, as they will happen," says Brogan. Several products monitor social media for organizations, including Radian6, Techrigy, BuzzGain, and Crimson Hexagon's VoxTrot. Alternatively, see Brogan's instructions for setting up a listening station using free online services at www.chrisbrogan.com/grow-bigger-ears-in-10-minutes.
  • Write a simple plan for what you'll do when you encounter tricky complaints online. "Leave a public comment wherever a threat or complaint arises, offer to solve the problem offline, apologize for frustration while not accepting blame, et cetera," says Brogan.
  • Build "passport" accounts on every major social platform to enable your organization to respond to criticism quickly. These include YouTube, Flickr, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, and so on.
  • Be ready to address concerns in an open way, but also be prepared to encourage most of the conversation to go offline. Otherwise, as Brogan put it: "The argument will stay in Google's memory forever."

However, when it comes to dealing with the general public or its proxy, the media, it's also important to take into account the bigger context of what drives public perceptions of businesses and how those drivers seem to be changing. Businesses and industries must realize that, when defending their reputation in a public forum, they start out with a trust deficit. "People don't trust large entities anymore," says Rawlins.

At the same time, according to the recently released results of the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, respondents counted "transparent and honest practices" as well as trustworthiness as more important to corporate reputation than financial performance or even the "quality of products and services"—a first in the 10-year history of the  survey.

When it comes to traditional media, it's important to correct inaccuracies, take a stand when necessary, and provide facts and information through channels you can control, says Rawlins, but avoid taking bait. If you do give undue attention to a critic whose relevance to your organization ordinarily would be considered low, you actually would drive trust in your organization lower by lending critics the legitimacy they seek.

"The media today isn't really about informing. It's about giving both sides," says Rawlins. "The number-one news value for traditional media is conflict because conflict sells. If you're going to feed that conflict, you're going into a battle you don't necessarily have any control over. Is there enough reward for that particular cost?"

The Edelman findings reinforce the importance of responding to any and all complaints with transparency and authenticity. Morgan's general prescription for countering a negative campaign is the same for both social media and traditional media: "Things like credibility, making  sure you're consistent, making sure you're responsive—those  qualities will shine through," he says. "If you're not timely, if you're not consistent, [that] also will magnify the negative."

Speaking of Squeaky Wheels ...

Does the squeakiest wheel tend to get the grease? Researchers posed this question in a 2004 study of the influence of interest groups on the federal bureaucracy. After studying 1,700 public comments made on 40 agency rules during the question and comment period of rulemaking, the researchers found that the volume and intensity of interest group comments did indeed impact the regulatory nature of the final rules. In other words, the bureaucracy ultimately sought to minimize criticism by greasing the squeakiest wheel.

Here it may be interjected that associations would do well to take a page from their own playbook and remember that less progress would be made—with the U.S. government, at least—if it weren't for such persistence. Or, as Green puts it: "You can learn a lot from a complainer."

It's important to judge each criticism on the basis of its merits, not just its source. When it comes to managing constant complainers, Green advises asking probing questions, being empathetic, and repeating back for clarity. "Don't dismiss them, because there might be something important the 15th time they come to you," she says.

When relationships are strong and an association is an active listener and responder, the job of responding to critics is made easier. "What's amazing is that our members will address it for us," says Green. She remembers a recent string of emails in which a series of members came to the defense of her organization. Her own organization did not have to respond. "To me, that's the best measure of whether or not you're doing the right thing and of the support you have. It says something about how we're managing our business," says Green. "Let them slug it out. It's OK to let someone else have the last word."

Whitney Redding is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. Email: [email protected]