Problems at the US Chamber of Commerce — and what we can learn about managing a crisis of confidence


The US Chamber of Commerce, which proclaims itself to be “the world’s largest business federation representing more than three million businesses and organizations of every size,” has a big problem on its hand.

High-profile companies have been quitting the Chamber, a virtual Who’s Who of top businesses, including Apple, PG&E, Nike, and Exelon.

The reason: the US Chamber’s opposition to the Waxman-Markey climate change bill.

The US Chamber points out that “ore than 96% of U.S. Chamber members are small businesses with 100 employees or fewer” and that “As the voice of business, the Chamber’s core purpose is to fight for free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies, the courts, the court of public opinion, and governments around the world.”

But its members seem to feel that the U.S. Chamber is not listening.

And, as a member of my local Chamber of Commerce, I’ve been upset about some of the positions staked out by the US Chamber: they didn’t truly seem to help small businesses.

I had mentioned something to my local chamber, but it turns out that local chambers of commerce are not necessarily members of the US Chamber — which is a branding problem.

For both the US Chamber and local chambers.

I’m a member of a local chamber, but have no input on what the US Chamber’s policy making function. Yet I was upset enough to consider quitting my local chamber, which has nothing to do with the US Chamber.

Meanwhile, the US Chamber seems to be responding to the news that more big-name members are quitting, seemingly each day, by sticking to its guns.

I’m sure that the US Chamber is losing smaller companies, too.

Yet as a call-to-action for prospective members, the Chamber says, “The Chamber understands your needs and protects your livelihood as if they are our own.”

It’s not a matter of them being “as if they are our own.” As a membership-based organization whose mission is “to fight for free enterprise,” its members’ needs and livelihood are their own.

So, the lessons learned:

  1. You need to listen to your members. It certainly doesn’t seem like the US Chamber is doing this. I’m sure the US Chamber conducts surveys of its membership to help determine the direction and policies to support. But when even energy companies are quitting because they have deep concerns regarding the US Chamber’s position on climate change, that’s a problem.
  2. You need to respond to your members. The lack of response to the companies leaving seems to indicate that the US Chamber doesn’t truly care about what its members think. In fact, according to Fast Company, “Why Did Apple Quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?” “Apple’s move probably won’t change any minds in the Chamber of Commerce–Eric Wohlschegel, a spokesman for the organization, shrugged off the mass exodus by explaining that some companies have more to gain from the Chamber’s stance than others.” Seems like that’s not acting as if members’ needs and livelihoods are “our own.”
  3. You need to realize that, whether you think it’s one or not, there’s a crisis. Shrugging off “a mass exodus” is not a way to manage a crisis. There is a message from the president of the US Chamber about its climate control policy, but it’s dated Sept. 29, and a lot of the high profile membership resignations have occurred in Oct. They haven’t even issued a press release this month, as of this morning, Oct. 7, to present their side of the issue. And there are no current op-eds on the site with data that supports a controversial policy.
  4. You need to engage your members. The first step could be to say, we realize that our current stance on climate control may be unpopular but we think it’s the right one, but we’re willing to meet with members to explain our reasons. Town Hall meetings have a bad tone these days, but why not set up events to talk to and hear from members? Why not show the level of membership support for the current policy? Yet we have no idea of how many members surveyed agree with the policy. So far the US Chamber has not done a good job here.
  5. You need to reach out to prospective members. Considering that the US Chamber needs to continue to recruit members, they need to use policy positions that will encourage prospective members to join. Doesn’t seem like fighting against climate change would generate new members.

Meanwhile, I’d have to say that the local chambers seem to be ignoring the matter, too. They may operate independently, but a lot of people may not realize that. There’s bound to be a lot of people and local businesses upset, and that could leave them with negative feelings about all chambers of commerce — which is not what you want right before renewal season. I know it’s not the local chambers’ battle, but they need to let their local members know they’re not part of the US Chamber.

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