A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Bryan Starr

Over the last 16 years of my career in association management, one consistent challenge I have noticed is that organizations struggle to penetrate through the constant flow of information to get their message out to the constituencies they serve.

Given that we serve our entire communities, this challenge is especially true for chambers of commerce. All of us have websites, newsletters, and most routinely post on various social media platforms, but is it compelling enough to get the attention of our target audiences?

How well is your chamber’s brand recognized? How do you improve message penetration and brand recognition, and therefore community relevance? I believe the answer to be fairly simple: Tell the stories of others, and they will tell yours.

When I came to the Greater Irvine Chamber, my then-board chairman told me that the chamber was the “best-kept secret in our region.” My response was that was a shame and if he felt that way a year later, he should find my replacement.

I knew the assets we had and how well we served our community. It was time to turn up the volume.

In his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie said, “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.” I find this to be exceptionally relevant in how we as chambers communicate.

Communication Challenge

After assuming my chamber role in Irvine and evaluating our communication strategy, I realized our immediate communication challenge. We were talking only about ourselves and how great we thought we were and that others ought to know it.

We had member testimonials and newsletters that talked only about chamber activities and events. We even produced a magazine that included little more than stale content and advertisements. It was incredibly boring to me, and I am the CEO.

Imagine how irrelevant that content must have been to the audience with which we aimed to engage. In short order, we were able to remedy this by turning the focus of the lens outward.

Telling the Community Story

We are incredibly blessed in our region to have some of the best community resources in the world. More than 60 years ago, the City of Irvine was master-planned to be an economic powerhouse, which is precisely what we have become.

This is the story that needed to be told. And the best way would be to tell the stories and successes of others. So, we did, and it worked.

We told the stories of our world-class research university — University of California, Irvine — and the 15 other colleges and universities in our city, our top-ranked K–12 school district, our robust nonprofit community, our exceptionally managed city government, our impressive public safety record, our beautiful parks and open space, and of course our vastly diverse business community that fuels our strong local economy.

Being a mouthpiece for others fostered a huge reservoir of goodwill and brought a great deal of attention (and revenue) to the chamber. Businesses, nonprofits, and educational institutions took notice, and our membership began to grow. Our Leaders Circle portfolio, which is our highest-paying group of investors, nearly doubled.

Our Champions

Becoming a champion for others resulted in others being champions for us. No longer did we need to tell our chamber story. Others were doing it for us. Our brand became well-recognized as the convener of our community, positioning us to be a catalyst for not just business growth but also the strength of our community.

It’s a simple but effective concept that I encourage others to explore. If you’re talking only about yourself, who will listen?

Be the tide that lifts all the boats in your community.

Bryan Starr is president and CEO of the Greater Irvine (CA) Chamber.