Keeping Key Stakeholders Informed

By: Douglas Vaira

If your organization is undergoing change, whether large or small, it's important to keep your staff and volunteers informed. Doing so will pay off in the form of increased member satisfaction, media promotion, and the association's well being.

A prospective member waits on the telephone while someone on your staff frantically searches your new website for the online membership application.

Current members receive incorrect information from a volunteer leader who is unaware that procedures for board nominations and elections have changed.

A frustrated reporter cuts a conversation short with your public policy director after she is unable to locate pertinent information in your revamped monthly publication.

The constant in all of these situations? Changes were made to key operational tools within an association—a website, a publication, a process—without organizational stakeholders' knowledge.

Your staff, your volunteer leaders, and your advocates are your front line of defense. Keep them in the dark, and, well, let's just say that things could get a little dicey. But keep them informed throughout the process of organizational change—as the three associations in this article did—and the time spent on internal communications will pay off tenfold in the long run in terms of member satisfaction, media promotion, and association well-being.

Change Is Good

Here's a quick look at the changes three associations made to better serve their staff and members.

Organization: Association Media & Publishing
Changes: New name, logo, brand, and website.
Reason for success: "Members are key to any organization, and if we made changes they weren't part of, we wouldn't have done the association any good," says Executive Director Amy Lestition, CAE.

Organization: Medical Library Association
Changes: Upgraded its AMS and redesigned its website.
Reason for success: "Keeping staff and members engaged and informed throughout the website redesign and AMS process ensured there were few surprises at launch," says Kate E. Corcoran, director, MLA Research and Information Systems.

Organization: Society for Neuroscience
Changes: Adopted an AMS.
Reason for success: "We worked hard to help staff understand 'what's in it for me,' which helped ensure they would be enthusiastic users once the system launched," says Senior Director, Planning and Information, Kate Hawker, CAE.

Change: It's a SNAP

A new logo, new brand, new website—and a new name. Suffice it to say, when Association Media & Publishing, formerly the Society of National Association Publications, decides to make a change, it means it.

"The catalyst for the changes was the evolution of the publishing industry, which was accelerated by the state of the economy," says AM&P Executive Director Amy E. Lestition, CAE.

For years, AM&P had been stagnant in terms of membership and content offerings, including its publishing and in-person programming.

So a few years ago, AM&P leaders conducted a needs-assessment survey of its members. Following the review of the survey results, the board approved four strategic initiatives: graphic identity and branding, webinars, a content-management system, and in-person programming.

After much discussion, which Lestition says "went in a circle," the board called for a strategic retreat to set the association's vision and future, hiring a consultant to lead the process.

The board approved the name change, making a formal announcement at its June 2009 annual conference. The association's core focus, says Lestition, continues to be to serve association professionals who edit, manage, or contribute to member- or industry-focused media, ranging from traditional print publications to websites to blogs.

With the announcement of the new name, AM&P, working with another consultant group, embarked on the process of developing a new logo and brand. It started with an information-gathering session, followed by a design presentation a few weeks later. The outside creative staff met with the AM&P team responsible for the new branding effort at both meetings. Everyone from the initial meeting, says Lestition, was present at the design presentation.

The new logo was unveiled in November 2009, along with the new membership structure. The new publications were unveiled two months later. The last piece of this process, a new website, was completed in June 2010.

Was staff on board throughout the entire process? Yes, says Lestition, "the entire staff played a role in the process," although, she admits, with a small staff, it was a bit easier to incorporate all the key players.

Lestition also says AM&P has been transparent throughout the process with its communication to members and other key stakeholders, never withholding information from focus groups, surveys, or research.

"A communications strategy was developed and implemented in order to keep our members apprised of the many, many changes," she says. "This included the traditional streams: press releases, interviews, information in our magazine and e-newsletter, and a Q&A at our programs and events, as well as utilizing social media and our online community."

Lestition says the association worked hard to get buy-in from its members and keep as many people involved in the process as possible. "The process was extremely inclusive and utilized volunteers as well as the board of directors," she says. In the end, says Lestition, AM&P has been extremely happy with the outcomes, stating that 99 percent of the feedback she's received has been positive.

"Members get the purpose of the new name," she says, "and they see a 'home' for themselves with the organization. The name connects with their roles and responsibilities and captures the current state of the publishing industry."

Beyond that, Lestition says AM&P leadership learned the importance of conducting due diligence and research before rushing to decisions. "Knowledge is power," she says, "and it certainly was in this case. Knowing what our members wanted and needed from us was key to the changes we conducted. Members are key to any organization, and if we made changes they weren't part of, we wouldn't have done the association any good."

She also says that the association gained a greater understanding of listening to its members and the importance of communicating to them transparently. "We took a year to unroll all of the changes, which gave us time to hear and listen to our members' comments," she says. "We were able to make tweaks along the way, which has enabled us to deliver better value to our members."

An Engaging Process

About five years ago, as part of its strategic planning process, the Medical Library Association started looking at updating its systems and web services. MLA scoped out a three-phase process that would consider the association's website and AMS.

First, a site "facelift" would modernize the look and feel of the association's website and navigation. Second, the existing AMS would be upgraded to a web-based platform. And third, a review of the website would be conducted to see if it would be realistic and cost effective for MLA to move from a static site to a content management system.

MLA staff reviewed survey results regarding member website content, developed and conducted a survey specifically about the website, and held focus groups and usability studies at the annual meeting. Member groups, such as the MLANet editorial board, helped with the process.

"Through that investigation," says Kate E. Corcoran, director, MLA Research and Information Systems, "we validated that the process we were using was appropriate and received good feedback about both the website and the types of services we would need to look for in a new AMS."

Because MLA distributes content management across the association's departments, Corcoran says a staff team was very involved with the site changes and testing and even more so with the selection of a new AMS. Staff members also serve as liaisons to association boards, committees, and task forces, she adds, and have input into the annual business plan, so it's "very important to keep them involved in the planning process."

To keep staff informed of the changes that were being made, Corcoran says that MLA relied upon regular meetings, ongoing email updates, and demonstrations. "Staff had key input into survey mechanisms to ensure their website areas of responsibility were reviewed," says Corcoran.

For members, Corcoran believes engagement is paramount. "For the website facelift, we involved members through surveys and focus groups," she says. "The MLANet editorial board was very involved in survey development, usability studies, and website-navigation development."

MLA even provided computer stations at its annual meeting so members could examine and review the new site design before its launch and offer feedback to tweak the site's look and navigation.

"Keeping staff and members engaged and informed throughout the website redesign and AMS process ensured there were few surprises at launch," says Corcoran.

Time for Change

The Society for Neuroscience is a 40-year-old professional society dedicated to advancing the understanding of the brain and nervous system. For four decades, SfN had operated quite effectively with its silos of data systems; however, these unlinked systems did not allow for effective data analysis.

So when SfN decided to adopt an AMS, says Kate Hawker, CAE, senior director, planning and information, the decision was not an easy one. "The primary reason for the implementation was to allow for data access that would inform stronger organizational decision making," says Hawker.

Hawker says that SfN knew that a project of this scope, with this great of an impact on the day-to-day lives of staff, would never succeed without active staff engagement. "We worked hard to help staff understand 'what's in it for me,' which helped ensure they would be enthusiastic users once the system launched," says Hawker.

How did SfN keep staff, members, and leadership up to date on the AMS process? Hawker says they used different mechanisms for each of those groups.

"For staff," she says, "we used written updates, all-staff meetings, a countdown-to-launch timer on the intranet homepage, and even occasional parties to build goodwill for the AMS."

For volunteer leadership, short verbal status reports at each meeting reinforced the expected benefits, but periodic written updates were also used. For the membership, communication was limited to launch announcements via email and the SfN website, as the changes were largely invisible to members.

The number-one piece of feedback from staff: How did we function without an AMS all these years?

"These 'a-ha' moments for staff, who realized there were better, faster, and more efficient ways to accomplish routine tasks, were key to keeping them enthusiastic throughout the long process," says Hawker. "As expected, there was some initial grumbling about process changes, but in general staff was very accepting and supportive of the initiative."

Douglas Vaira is a freelance writer based in Charles Town, West Virginia. Email: [email protected]