Trade Association Advocacy and the Political Conventions

Well it’s here, the two weeks every four years when the political parties hold their nominating conventions.  In DC shorthand it’s referred to as “Cleveland” or “Philadelphia” as in “are you going to Cleveland?”Trumpshutterstock_283689917

There’s been a wave of reporting recently about trade associations and corporations reducing their investments in convention activities, particularly the Republican one this week in Cleveland.  Here’s the Washington Post story.

CEO Update, the source for association executive news has a similar article here.

I last attended a national political convention in 1996.  The location was the San Diego Convention Center and the Republican nominees were Robert Dole and Jack Kemp.  That year I learned how much happens in a convention host city outside the convention hall and I made lasting personal connections with people involved in government and politics.  John Feehery of the Feehery Theory reminded me that Jack Kemp was the big news that year, but not big enough to stop Bill Clinton’s re-election.

Trade associations, particularly small-medium sized ones, are sometimes unsure of just how politically engaged they should be.  This confusion extends to the political conventions and as a result opportunities for valuable engagement are missed every four years.

Participation at a political convention doesn’t just mean listening to the convention hall speeches and going to parties.  Many associations and corporations hold policy events, frequently a breakfast or lunch event in the host city.  Hosting a policy-oriented event rather than a social event can create objective and measurable progress toward your associations’ legislative goals. Conventions are more than people wearing funny hats.  These policy briefings can be substantive, and include discussions of your industries most pressing legislative items.

Conventions also require lots of volunteers.  That’s how I got involved in the ‘96 convention in San Diego, as a volunteer scheduling media interviews for Members of Congress.  If you’re a trade association executive that can’t convince your association to invest in a convention-related event perhaps you can volunteer for one of the political parties.

The articles linked above suggest that associations and corporations are for some vague reason spending even less at this year’s conventions, particularly the Republican one this week in Cleveland.  Scaling back an association’s investment in convention-related outreach because of questions about Trump’s readiness to lead doesn’t seem rational to me.  Someone said that involving your association in Cleveland creates the risk that your industry will be seen in a negative light.  What risks are created by not engaging with the leaders, and future leaders, that will create the laws that your industry operates under?  The government’s impact on your industry isn’t fading, so why should your political outreach?

Donald Trump isn’t universally popular, but neither is Hillary Clinton.  The political conventions are much more than an acceptance speech from the party candidate.  They are a gathering of the top leaders from the parties and an unparalleled way to get visibility for your industry, its leaders, and their political and legislative objectives.

At the end of the day your association’s engagement at the political conventions should match its engagement on Capitol Hill.  Conventions also offer the rare potential for state and federal impact all at once.   The political conventions are the only place that both state and federal political leaders all come together.  And many state political leaders of today are the federal leaders of tomorrow.

If you’re involved in an association and they’re not participating in Cleveland or Philadelphia, take some time over the next two weeks to reconsider this so that you don’t make the same mistake again in four years.

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