GR Wins on a Pandemic Pivot – 5 Tips from an industry association

Erin Roberts, Partner, Zzeem

Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you make your own luck when opportunities appear from a challenging situation. I’d like to share with you the experience of one health care industry trade association. They have achieved more wins during the pandemic than they had achieved in decades of advocacy efforts, and they’re still on a roll.

The Back Story

This association has been advocating for much-needed process changes to an Ontario Ministry of Health (MoH) funding program for over a decade. They had made no progress, and they were unable to build productive relationships with decision-makers. The association was well-known to the Ministry and had the appropriate contacts, but their requests went unheeded.

What Happened?

Then came COVID. The funding program was entirely run by mail and manual processes, and it could not accommodate virtual workers. They had to shut down, leaving thousands of vulnerable Ontarians without access to critical health care equipment. The association reached out to the Ministry as soon as the shut down was announced. They warned of a negative response, and they offered solutions.

The press picked up the story from another advocacy group, and all of a sudden this MoH program had more public profile than it had ever had, and all of it was negative.

TIP #1: Bad Press = Opportunity

Immediately the program director reached out to the association for assistance. The association worked with the program director and his team to provide grass roots intelligence and guidance. The association requested and received bi-weekly meetings with the program director and his team.

TIP #2: Helping Decision-Makers =  Opportunity + Influence

The association expanded their government relations task force to include member business owners to provide an “on-the-ground” perspective. They also created an open advisory council of members to help direct government relations priorities.

This had two beneficial effects. Firstly, the member business owners were able to provide an important personal perspective that was different from that of the government relations professionals that had previously comprised the task force. Secondly, the advisory council actively engaged members and made them invested in the government relations outreach.

The association took the initiative to prepare the agenda for each call with the MoH team, and this approach has proved critical to managing the outcome of each call. The association makes sure the agenda includes items that are important to the MoH, and that it includes other items that are key to the association. This quid pro quo on agenda management ensures the MoH team sees value from the calls and is therefore open to topics that might not otherwise get the attention of MoH senior management.

TIP #3: Controlling the Agenda = Influencing the Results

Quite quickly the association built a trusted relationship with the MoH team. They made a point of thanking the program director and his team for each win and explained to them the beneficial impact resulting from their decision.

Any time the association had to reach out to a higher-level contact at the MoH they informed the program director in advance as a courtesy. Almost immediately, the program director started giving the association advance notice when a program-related announcement was pending. This had never happened before.

TIP #4: Courtesy Builds Trust

During this period, the association consistently reaches out to both members and non-members to keep them apprised of the discussions and priorities with the MoH. The association has also initiated a call campaign to encourage non-members to join, reminding them of the wins the association is achieving on their behalf.

TIP #5: Managing the Narrative = Leadership

The Results

The association has been granted every pandemic-specific request they have made; even those for which the Ministry was initially reluctant. The entire program administrative platform has been digitized and automated. Turnaround time for approval of health care equipment that used to take months is now typically 2 weeks.

The association has also made inroads on bigger picture issues that had never before made it to the table for discussion. The MoH has released policy information they had previously been unwilling to share, and is taking seriously the association’s proposals for a more transparent and collaborative relationship between the Ministry and the association.

The association is now a credible, trusted partner. The program director is keen to maintain the relationship.

There has been a significant increase in member engagement. Because members are actively involved in the government relations outreach, they feel like they have more influence and a stronger voice. There has also been a significant increase in membership; because of the communications outreach to non-members, and the ongoing call campaign.

Companies that were once vocal detractors of the association as an ineffective old boys’ club have joined the association and are actively engaged as volunteers. At the last AGM, for the first time in remembered history there were more nominees than openings for director and officer positions.

So What Worked?

  1. They seized the opportunity. The negative press provided an opening to have a voice with the MoH, they landed on it.
  2. They place a priority on solving problems for the MoH team and demonstrating their value as a partner.
  3. They took the opportunity to control the agenda on calls with the Ministry.
  4. They are respectful and courteous with plenty of positive reinforcement.
  5. They communicate well and often with non-members, and have an ongoing targeted call campaign.
  6. They brought in business owners to the bi-weekly government calls to provide a grass-roots perspective.

What’s Next?

The key to ongoing success for the association is to maintain the relationship they have built with the MoH team. In order to do this, they must continue to deliver value to the Ministry. This means delivering constant environmental scanning and grass roots intelligence to MoH to identify emerging issues and solutions.

With this in hand, they will maintain the role of trusted advisor, and this allows them to make progress on issues that are critical to their members.

Erin Roberts is a partner at Zzeem; an association management and consulting agency.