A time to come together

I have seen it happen for decades, and a friend of mine put the experience best: “Humans are naturally wired so that their intuition does not guide them properly when it comes to making financial decisions. Intuition and fear always drive people to sell and wait until the stock market gets better. They lose the buying opportunity.”

That very description holds true in political and K Street trade-association life. As the economy worsens and budgets tighten, the strains on association membership only increase. Just as investors panic, so too do associations, their leadership and members. A once-unified membership can suddenly point fingers and turn minor issues into major disagreements.

More practically, here is what I mean: Right now, the No. 1 issue is obviously the economy, and every trade organization and lobbyist is grappling with that fact in some fashion. At board meetings and on conference calls, the sense of panic is real. The questions are tough: Why weren’t we eligible for federal aid? Why didn’t we see this regulatory change coming? Why weren’t we included in the stimulus package? The answers are not always easy to explain.

Meanwhile, independent lobbying clients are looking for new representation, not just because of a new administration in place, but also because of the perception that the current lobbyist is no longer up to the job. At the same time, association members are forming “rump” groups. Members are breaking away from their traditional unified base and vocally expressing discontent with the association leadership.

After 40 years on Capitol Hill, and having lived through several dark economic periods as both a lobbyist and member of Congress, I understand that this sense of fear is natural. While I do not endorse it, I can explain it. But I can also say that this behavior can be limited and mitigated by those who take action.

Independent K Street lobbying firms or trade associations need to emphasize communication. This means following several concrete steps:

• Top association leaders need to communicate even more frequently with members. An increased and direct communication on the issues of concern is essential. Relevant e-mails and calls should be frequent. The same rule applies to independent lobbyists who communicate with clients.

• Video conference calls and Webinars are a must, especially as members or clients feel pressured to cut or reduce visits to Washington.

• Do not wait for the “big story” to hit the mass media before offering advice. Anticipate and deliver quickly. Warn members and/or clients that big news is coming their way.

• Be respectful of time. In this environment, members or clients may be working more hours for less money and with a greater sense of frustration.

• When an immediate concern cannot be resolved, association members need to be reassured that everything is being done. Concrete and real steps that have been taken so far need to be demonstrated.

At my organization, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), we are following these steps every single day. Are mistakes made? Absolutely. Do our members agree on every issue? No way. But overall, we are united and our members continue to believe in us. We know that in this financial crisis, everything on Capitol Hill and at the regulatory level is moving at light-speed, and we are constantly communicating.

Association life — if lived properly — really requires balance. During good times, infighting can still occur. When “nothing is going on” and all looks well, some perceive that the association is no longer worth its dues. During tougher periods, infighting occurs because the expected “miracle” is not being delivered; the crisis is not being addressed properly.

Again, it is a balance. A time of crisis can also be energizing and, in some respects, the best of times. A good fight can pull everyone together. The realization that we must work together can bring meaningful solutions. Once again, communication is key. And yes, it is important to sometimes ignore that human intuition and instead focus on the key facts and what needs to be done to rebuild our country.

Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. He was a congressman (D-Fla.) from 1979-1989.