Several times over the last few weeks I’ve been witness to a debate about the role of trade associations. Is it the trade association’s role to educate communities or set standards, or do companies have an equal obligation to take a stand?

One of my clients, Mercury Computer Systems, is facing this issue right now.  After years of finding one of its trade associations slow to develop an interoperability specification for a computing technology standard, it decided to put a stake in the ground to move the industry forward.  Given that this standard is said to represent the future of some of the most complex military systems, Mercury was quickly joined by dozens of industry leaders including Boeing and GE Fanuc, all of whom recognized that a lack of movement by the trade association could impact billion dollar defense programs.

Most recently, this debate about trade groups also took shape at Babson University’s Entrepreneurial Energy Expo.  I was one of more than 600 people who attended this event last Thursday to discuss issues related to the green tech community.  As a sponsor (Greenough helped promote the event for Babson), I spent the day meeting with a number of interesting folks – from students to those starting their own businesses to clean tech leaders.  I also attended a panel on Marketing and Selling in the Environmental Industry.  It was a hot topic.  Not just “standing-room-only,” but a full house with dozens of people leaning against walls and sitting on the floor. 

One question during the panel caught my attention – not so much for the question, but the answer.  A gentleman asked how to best market renewable energy projects, like Cape Wind, to communities who “in theory” support environmental issues but argue NIMBY (Not in My Backyard).  I was expecting a discussion around thought leadership, social media and grassroots approaches, but instead was surprised when the discussion got sidetracked by an audience member who said it’s typically the trade association’s role to “brand the need.”

I disagreed and found myself wishing I was on the panel instead of in the audience. While, yes, it is a role of trade associations to educate about industry issues, it shouldn’t stop there.  It’s all of our responsibility to take a stand.  The more voices singing the same song, the louder we can be and the more impact we can have.  If an issue is important to us, we need to look for ways to get our opinions out there – to educate, inform and inspire action. 

Here’s a good example: citizen journalist Walter Brooks wrote a powerful blog on CapeCodToday a couple of weeks ago about juxtaposing stories in the Cape Cod Times.  Above a story about how the Cape Cod Commission (CCC) is mounting legal challenges against Cape Wind was an above-the-fold headline reading, “Warming could swamp Northeast.”  Alanis Morisette’s “Isn’t it Ironic?” is playing in my head right now as I read it.  Brooks’ blog started quite a conversation: 90 responses in just four days.  Rather than wait for someone else to fight the battle, Brooks argued publicly and persuasively that the Cape Cod Commission is wasting taxpayer money in a futile fight to stop what we need (renewable energy) to free us from one of our greatest threats (global warming).  Brooks did what he set out to do: inspire action.  Many of those who commented vowed to voice their concerns to the CCC immediately.

I liked one of Brooks’ quotes, “I think we’re lucky that on a clear day we’ll be able to see the wind turbines from some of our beaches. That sight will remind us that we are not powerless…”  This holds true in marketing as well.  We’re not powerless.  We’re storytellers and educators.  We shouldn’t wait for someone else to say it for us.

— Contributed by Stacey Mann