I visited a North Carolina town recently and I had a free evening to wander. Many of my trips involve 20 or 30 hours on the ground, spent largely in hotel meeting rooms and airport lounges. I seldom get the chance to stroll, observe, taste and talk. On my self-guided tour, it was fun to speculate about where the local chamber’s influence may have played a role. Let’s see . . .
Perhaps the chamber lobbied for the new bypass connecting the east and west sides of town. Who was responsible for the window signs promoting an upcoming festival, and who pulled together the mixed use development under construction near the hospital? The bold newspaper headline about a proposed business regulation was probably planted in an editor’s ear by a chamber staffer. Was the storefront in the otherwise unoccupied building converted into a job interview hub for veterans because of chamber connections with the landlord? Was the waitress pouring morning coffee and moaning about state budget woes aware of the issue because of chamber “propaganda?” Could the paint on a minivan window heralding the victory of the girls’ swim team be the long-delayed result of chamber efforts to construct a public pool? Did the obviously successful graphics firm build its client base through meaningful business networks?
I fantasized that all of the celebrations, worries, growth, purposeful friction and life support in that town somehow had the chamber’s fingerprints on it. Maybe, but who would know?
Our research at ACCE indicates that we should be concerned about chambers being satisfied with working “behind the scenes.” You should be concerned, too. Behind the scenes is not enough. Chamber leaders must understand and articulate the direct and indirect impacts their organizations have on the cities, towns, regions and states they serve.
There’s an old line about the most dangerous place to stand being between a politician and a TV camera. When there’s a major ribbon cutting or jobs announcement, every elected official, as well as every one of your “allies,” will emphasize their critical role in securing the 100 new jobs or the new waterfront development.
Of course, you must let them all have their three minutes of scripted fame, whether they actually helped or not. The question is, how will you maximize recognition of your role before and after the staged celebrations. You must find a way to clearly document and quietly herald your leadership. Those who matter most – key investors, business editors, legislative staffs, true allies – must know the truth about how the work gets done, even if viewers of the evening news don’t get to see it.
Some chambers are absolute masters at turning last year’s victories (matches made, legislation passed, bureaucracies tamed, initiatives launched) into next year’s money. By consciously noting the task forces on which you serve, the one-on-one meetings you’ve held, those memorable earned media spots and other advances toward goals, you can make the case for future funding and perpetual member loyalty.
It won’t work to exaggerate your leadership, but when you can legitimately say in 2014 that you were the person who first introduced Senator Wilson’s top aid to the germ of an idea way back in 2012, your credibility is enhanced. If you can point to the chamber event where a new plant manager was introduced to the business elite of your community, it can pay dividends when the plant expands. If the school’s STEM program relies on chamber connections for funding and internships, your role should be memorialized as the graduates pour forth.
The truth about community-regional successes is that you often lead and always help make them happen. It is also true that too few people know it.
This year, ACCE will be working harder than ever to help you walk the line between pride in your work and boasting. With the help of Insperity, in recent years we reinvigorated our efforts to enhance the brand image of all chambers with video campaigns, research on the value of chamber membership (Schapiro studies 1 & 2) and bold pitches to foundations about the strength of chambers. We’re just getting started.
The cool part about helping you improve public and investor perceptions of your work is that it’s so easy to find examples of the good work you’re doing. But virtually every member we work with desires greater capacity (resources, talent, best practice models, research) to do more. We’ll do all we can in the coming months to help you find or build that capacity so that you’ll have a powerful story to tell in 2013 and beyond.
In the meantime, take a little walk or drive around your town, or peruse the local paper. Admire your fingerprints.
Mick Fleming is president of ACCE.
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