This month’s spotlight shines on Robert L. Johnson, founder of the RLJ Companies and one of America’s most successful media, business and entertainment moguls. What you may not know about Johnson is that his earlier career included working in the association world.
For years, associations have struggled to find the right balance between advancing their lobbying and advocacy efforts and boosting their bottom line. But it shouldn’t be a matter of either/or, according to Johnson, it’s either and or.
Excerpted from a presentation to Naylor, LLC, employees earlier this year. Naylor is the parent of Association Adviser eNews.
AA: Robert, how did you make the leap from a young association lobbyist to owner of one of America’s largest, minority-owned business enterprises?
RLJ: After completing graduate studies from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, I found positions in D.C. as the press secretary for former Washington, D.C., Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, and then later as the vice president for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).
AA: So, how did you get into the cable industry?
RLJ: An acquaintance at a party introduced me to the head of the NCTA. Here was an opportunity to join an association that had a clear and concise mission—to free cable television from over-regulation mainly supported by our competition [the broadcast industry]. That’s where I helped cable go from a few wired cities and 35 channels to a multiplicity of thousands of channels. That’s the power of an association to change the face of an industry. Do something that’s better for the consumer and better for the industry.
AA: How do associations balance the fine line between serving members well and not competing with them on the advocacy front?
RLJ: There’s always a conflict for associations since [individual member] companies have their own lobbyists and think you, the trade association, are trying to take their jobs away. They think they have greater access to members of Congress, the press and even your constituents. Your job is to create that passion, that belief, that whatever it is you represent, that you can do it more effectively for members in ways that they can’t do it for themselves.
AA: You use the word “speed” a lot when talking about building businesses or fighting for causes. Why is that?
RLJ: The world of information is so vast, and the ability to communicate that information to consumers, regulators, legislators or anyone else affecting your industry is so quick. You can’t be slow off the dime to getting [people] access to your ideas, to your information, to the passion that you have for your cause. Whether it’s a business or social organization—you really want to be a first mover in shaping your content. Consumers (i.e. your members) have so many choices today. You want to be deeply involved in providing decisive mind-changing information to stay connected with them.
AA: What are some of the biggest mistakes that associations make when it comes to their lobbying and advocacy initiatives?
RLJ: It makes no sense to [do all the lobbying/advocacy] that associations do and NOT turn that passion into a monetization event to support the cause. It’s not as if you’re taking the money and putting it into your pocket. You’re putting it back into what your goals are. It’s important as a trade association that you take advantage of every technological advantage that’s available today. This puts you at the head of the class.
AA: So, you’re saying don’t apologize for your non-dues revenue activities if they make the organization stronger and keep dues bills reasonable?
RLJ: Any time you can identify new sources of revenue, new streams of access, new ways to access your core constituencies, I would argue that it’s probably the most important responsibility of anybody in the trade association business.
AA: What are some things associations can do to get their mission and advocacy efforts to the next level?
RLJ: If you can marry digital technology with the ability to reach consumers on a consistent and constant basis, and if you have the ability to impact their lives and become part of a group, then you’re creating an emotionally engaging experience with a common objective and a common passion. That is a laudable goal.
AA: Can you expand on that?
RLJ: As a trade association, you represent a brand and you represent people who have a passion for that brand and their causes.
AA: Why do you think that well-run associations continue to be relevant for their members?
RLJ: Everybody who is a member of a trade association is a leader in his or her community or industry sector. As an association, you get to know all the issues. You get to know what the opposition’s position on your industry, what consumers think about you if the industry is going against the tide. All of this can be used to do what I think is the most important [part] about changing human behavior and that is having a passion for a cause.
AA: Tell us more about what passion means to you in the association sense.
RLJ: Take passion. Turn it into a productive platform that you can use to make sure you’re impacting not only the people who pay dues, but the people who will help change the way your trade association affects society as a whole.
AA: Speaking of well-run organizations, what advice can you give association leaders that you’ve learned from the business world?
RLJ: Invest in bright people and bright opportunities. Going back to the early days of Black Entertainment Television, [I learned] to invest in businesses that you understand well or that the people you work with understand well.
AA: Any final thoughts for our readers and viewers?
RLJ: If you can show that your mission is to impact the market, the constituents and the industry that members are trying to serve, then I think you’ll be around for a very long time.
Robert L. Johnson is the founder and chairman of The RLJ Companies, an innovative business network that provides strategic investments in a diverse portfolio of companies that includes RLJ Equity Partners, LLC, which acquired Naylor, LLC in December 2013. The RLJ Companies is headquartered in Bethesda, MD, with affiliate operations in Charlotte, NC; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; San Juan, PR; and Monrovia, Liberia. Prior to founding The RLJ Companies, Johnson was founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Television (BET).