How to use trade associations to get publicity and why running can be good for PR

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr podcast

The old days of physically going to trade shows if you were a member of a trade association at times felt like doing a marathon. One would spend two or three days walking around floor after floor, trying to reach out to customers in the media. Now, that’s no longer done; Zoom calls are much easier. However, it’s not as easy to reach out to people unlike before when one could get closer to potential audiences by doing PR through the media coming to the booth or you going to them. At the same time, press conferences helped companies find out what was being said about them. Public relations is about the different stakeholder groups: partners, customers, and staff, and these are communities that trade associations can help with in terms of the PR and corporate relationship of the company. 

What you should know before joining a trade association

A trade association is only as productive as the amount of energy you put into them. Anybody that joins a trade association believes it will bring them business is mistaken, but people still join trade associations for several different reasons. The National Association of Manufacturers, which could be seen as one of the pioneer groups in America, originally began as a political lobbying organisation in 1895. Their original goal was to help American manufacturers limit companies importing to America, and ironically, they wanted to retain a high or protected tariff. At the turn of the century, they helped lobby against organised labour. In the new deal after World War II, they became a force with the republican government and coalition, trying to reduce the role of the American government in the economy. As history shows, there is a long history of trade associations in America as being a channel into the government.

In America, research done between 2008 and 2017 found that the US Chamber of Commerce spent approximately $240 million on PR. In other countries, PR isn’t necessarily paid for and the members of associations themselves might even get involved. If you want to join a trade association as a company, what would you do for your PR? The obvious one is that trade associations have their own members. This means you can proximate with other companies that could be potential customers. 

There are two types of trade organisations: vertical and horizontal trade organizations. The former is when everybody is from the same industry. For instance, the SMT or Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders is a vertical organisation. The Milk Marketing Board is a vertical organisation where everybody is working with the same business with collective interests; SMT works to promote automotive interests, and with Milk Marketing, the aim is to get more people to buy milk. A horizontal chamber or association would be Bexar, which is a disparate group of companies with the common purpose of exporting. The latter type of trade organisation is one where companies could be in entirely different sectors or industries from one another. Regardless of the nature of the organisation, they both have a rationale, therefore, it is worth considering which one to join. Do you need collective action as an industry, or do you need a nation or national grouping to work together in the same way that Bexar does for its group of British companies needing assistant in their exports? 

Perks of being part of a trade association

If you were to join a trade association, they always have a platform for communication such as a blog where it could be possible to take your content and contribute that to their platform, because while they have members, they also have the media. The media will go to the trade association for comments or for a spokesperson. The presence of a company and its profile within a Chamber can be an opportunity for the media to find you in a way that they might not otherwise do. One of the reasons these speaking opportunities come about is because the Chamber is seen as an authority that comes from being an official body. If you are representing that official body as an officer or one of its members, then you have credibility over and beyond your own company, so you could be speaking about something that isn’t solely related to your company but from a corporate responsibility point of view or in a corporate PR sense. 

Training and certification are something else trade associations have. This makes it possible to offer your services to provide training or have your staff acquire any necessary certification. In Singapore, for example, there is the IPRS, which is the international PR group, and they have courses that staff can enroll in and attain certification. Another area that is of great value is access to industry information. Within a chamber, there are forums, which, as one example, could be a forum for automotive or professional services. That means that within an environment of professional excellence, you could share your own industry expertise, learn from others, or take any non-confidential information as statistics or a report, thereby creating the framework for articles and interviews that could then be used for one’s own PR activities. 

Awards held by Chamber of Commerce groups can be a platform for companies to enter and get sponsored, and winning that would be a great accolade. While consumers or partners appreciate companies that are winners, there is also the chance to put branding on the merchandise material, making it a great way to use a common platform to position the company. In the UK, the trade association forum was established in 1997 and is administered by the CBI, an umbrella organisation for all the trade associations within the UK. Singapore has the Singapore Business Federation which is another government-backed umbrella organisation. The Association of German Industry has the BDI which is the umbrella organisation for trade associations in Germany. In China, Chambers of Commerce are regulated and there is only allowed to be one per country. You can’t set up your own associations because that could constitute a political party. Therefore, different countries have their own regulations, so it is necessary to check those. 

Trade associations could help you engage with your audience

As a platform, grouping together in a vertical or horizontal Chamber of Commerce organisation brings many benefits, and consumers have their own associations too. The UK Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1957 and has 1.3 million members. In America, Ralph Nader was the hopeful presidential candidate pioneering in his campaign against the automotive industry. Back in the mid-’50s, he published the book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which became a landmark where he was prosecuting American cars for their build quality. As a result of his labor, he managed to get consumers put at the forefront. Evidently, trade associations for business have a role to play for consumers. If there are ways for your brand to engage with those trade associations, both the professional and personal ones, then it provides a connection for direct sales as well as publicity.

It’s possible to build a brand and communicate with broad brush PR, all while keeping in mind potential partners, staff, and customers, and how you can take part in what they are doing. Since some companies may be partners or customers already, there will be channels to communicate PR through various networks, leading to the idea of the cascade theory. Think about your message, which audience you can share that which, signage you can put up, and how you can use trade associations and the people around you and what they are wearing or saying to rebuild your brand during these COVID times.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Product School on Unsplash

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