Accountability In Associations: A Look At Why Being Vocal In Crisis Is Usually The Right Approach

This post originally appeared in Bulldog Reporter

By Kate Connors, Senior Account Manager & Social Media Strategist

For those PR gurus who have worked with associations, you know that coordinated internal and external communication is crucial for the success of the organization. If an association’s board does not have coherent messaging, bylaws, and goals, then they cannot bring success to its members. And it isn’t just the board; every employee and staff member—even consultants—need to also be part of this communications plan so that anything conveyed to members, third-party influencers, or the media is on point with the association’s mission. When crisis strikes an association, internal communication becomes ever more crucial. Recently, the Harrisburg International Airport Police Association and the Maine Tourism Association experienced cases of theft by former employees. Although the cases are similar, the approach they took to communicate with their audiences is completely different, leaving the PR practitioner with a teachable moment for its clients.

Bangor Daily News reported an alleged theft committed at the Maine Tourism Association (MTA) by a former employee while still on staff. According to Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, the former employee is facing a felony charge after stealing $10,000.00 from MTA.  Although the MTA chose not to mention the incident in their recent newsletter, their CEO Vaughn Stinson was very open with the Bangor Daily News reporter about the theft and what the organization is doing to ensure it does not happen again. The report had a balanced and positive tone about MTA since Stinson addressed the issues and informed the public what he was doing to change them.

Being honest and accountable with a reporter is extremely important for any association. With the growing impact of viral channels, individuals rely on journalists, bloggers, and other social users to garner information quickly. When an association tries to hide their problems and not address them face on, it usually backfires as members begin to lose their trust in the leaders and the media finds conflicts and mistakes. Forums have become a popular tool for disgruntled association members, allowing individuals to freely voice their opinions and garner support from others. If the media wants to, they can usually also find a way to access these forums and find out whether or not an organization has been upfront about a situation.

Unfortunately, theft amongst associations is not uncommon. Earlier in January, a local ABC affiliate reported that Todd MacFarlane, a former president and treasurer of the Harrisburg International Airport Police Association, was charged with stealing $11,467.00. He was charged with theft by unlawful taking and is awaiting a preliminary hearing. This case was picked up by several outlets and received robust media traction, leading me to wonder how the situation was conveyed to the public and the members.  Because of the association’s decision not to make a media statement, none of the articles highlight positive steps that they are taking to rectify the situation.

The difference between these cases is the proactive messaging that is being shared with members, reporters, and the public. In the case of the Harrisburg International Airport Police Association, there is very little commentary from the association about whether or not they hold themselves accountable and what action they are taking to ensure this does not happen again. MTA has taken a completely different approach. According to the Bangor Daily News, MTA has taken new security procedures and takes full responsibility for what happened. MTA CEO Vaughn Stinson was quoted saying the following:

“I feel that we’ve gone in there and made some changes that make [theft] that much harder,” Stinson said, but he also said the accounting firm he worked with acknowledged that “at the end of the day, it all comes down to the honesty of your employees.”

Stinson declined to release many details about the thefts because the case has yet to reach the courts and he doesn’t want to hurt the prosecution’s case. He said he felt “full responsibility” because the thefts happened on his watch and described the alleged crimes as “embarrassing and hurtful.”

Since the thefts, MTA has recouped most of the money lost thanks to its insurance coverage, according to Stinson. The organization’s total budget last year was about $2.1 million, he said.

“However, any amount of money that goes unaccounted for, gets spent in the wrong way, is absolutely unacceptable,” Stinson added.

On the other hand, Timothy Edwards Harrisburg, Authority Executive Director International Airport Police Association, was very minimal in his communications to this public, stating only that MacFarlane resigned his position. We fully recognize that there are legal issues and restrictions about what can say concerning a case in litigation but there is ALWAYS something that can be said in order to look like nothing is being hidden and, not insignificantly, to keep up friendly relationships with the media, if possible.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me be clear: I am not a member of these organizations so I cannot be sure about what was communicated to members internally. That being said, in today’s viral world where you can learn about news through numerous mediums, associations should always assume that the public is listening. One should always prepare an internal statement, alongside a statement for the media/public so that they can get the message out as quickly as possible if need be. Many associations are struggling to grow in today’s economy, so bringing in new members is key. Potential new members want an association that is open, proactive, and responsive, which is exactly the path MTA took in these recent theft cases.