The end of the road

Trade association representatives learn how expressing political views can conflict with job responsibilities

A colleague who works as a communications representative for a large corporation has a personal Twitter feed. On that feed, he’s noted, “Opinions expressed here are my own.”

Well, perhaps my colleague does the expressing, but those comments may not end with him.

Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 3.46.45 PMPeople who work as representatives or spokespersons for companies or other organizations may not realize it, but when they take on their responsibilities they are giving up a level of personal independence.

Once you choose to represent another entity – whether it’s a cause, product, company or group – you become associated with that entity. Because of that association, any of your views and opinions can reflect on the organization you represent. You not only identify with the other entity: you have to put yourself in a position where others will identify you with that organization.

This surrender of independence doesn’t just apply to spokespeople. It’s perhaps most applicable to top executives, who work their way up the ranks to become leaders of their organizations. They become the faces of those organizations.

For most, none of this is a problem. They work on behalf of organizations because they believe in them and want to be identified with them.

But what if someone’s personal stances conflict with their responsibilities to an organization?

The faces of an industry

Consider, for example, the case of Amy and Brad Herzog.

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Amy and Brad Herzog and their two sons, in 2011 (Huffington Post)

Amy and Brad had what many might consider a dream job. For 17 years, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) hired them to travel across the United States in an RV and give television interviews about the benefits of vacationing with an RV. The Herzogs were the public faces of the RV industry, visiting all corners of the country.

In June, however, the couple launched a Kickstarter campaign for a book that condemned GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and encouraged voters not to support him. When word got out that the Herzogs were pursuing such a project – separate from their position with the RVIA, to be sure – the editor of RV Daily Report called for the organization to sever its ties with the couple.

Shortly afterward, an RVIA representative called them to say the association had suspended the tour they were participating in and wouldn’t award them the remaining money it had promised them.

Brad Herzog said that he and his wife never mentioned their book during their work, nor used their position as RVIA spokespeople to talk about it.

“Suddenly, because it came out that we had other lives that included creative ways of expressing the courage of our convictions, we were deemed toxic,” he told the Huffington Post.

The RVIA responded that the Herzogs’ book “distracted from our core value of political neutrality.”

“The decision to suspend the tour was based solely on the tone and content of the Herzogs’ book,” the association said via a statement on their web site.  “Regardless of the candidate or political affiliation depicted, we would have arrived at the same decision.”

This relationship is broken

Both sides were rather disingenuous. The Herzogs should have known that having built high-profile public reputations, a public Kickstarter campaign could risk offending RV aficionados. At the risk of stereotyping, U.S. RV fans likely include Trump supporters. No surprise that the Herzogs’ activities would generate a negative response.

The RVIA’s statement was certainly the right one: it’s an RV association, not a political organization. In an election campaign, it must maintain a public position of clear neutrality. But there’s also no question that allowing the Herzogs to continue their campaign would have hurt their membership.

The Herzogs have every right to their political views. Making donations, expressing their views and exercising their voting rights out of the public eye would not have conflicted with their responsibilities to the RVIA.

But in taking such a high-profile approach, they should have realized they risked losing their job as association spokespeople.

Things likely will work out fine for the Herzogs. They run a small publishing company, and Brad Herzog has written more than 30 books.

But as spokespeople, they exhibited poor judgment, and forgot that they represented an organization whose members might not share their views, which were irrelevant to their job with the RVIA.

For those who represent organizations: when it comes to the organization you speak for, and your own political views, you can’t always have it both ways.

–Patrick Hirigoyen

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