Industry Insights: Relationships Build a Bridge to Our Future

These days, it seems that a lot of people communicate in short hand. Twitter is 140 characters and goodness knows that the prevalence of texting has created all sorts of abbreviations. It might be easy to think that words don’t matter. But I think they matter more than ever. The poet Maya Angelou put it this way: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Frank Luntz, a noted pollster and author, had much the same message, though he used different words: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

I recently heard Luntz speak at a US Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting. While his discussion was wide-ranging, there were many lessons that resonate in our industry. Luntz spoke about how divided the country is and how wary the American public is of corporations and businesses. He questioned whether we as businesses use words that enforce their lack of trust.

At the end of the day, trust is built on relationships. That means businesses must understand what their customers need and what they want to achieve.  This takes an investment of time.

For ISA, it means building important relationships with our members. And when we listen to what you are telling us matters most, we respond. Members continue to tell us that one of the most perplexing aspects of their business is dealing with government entities, from the local planning board to the federal government.

Most of the businesses in our industry are relatively small; yet daily operations may be affected by an EPA decision just as easily as they are influenced by a local code change. It can be nearly impossible to keep up, especially when business owners are focused on their own challenges: winning the bid, replacing that key personnel, or seizing new opportunities.

That’s where ISA can play an important role for sign companies. We have devoted tremendous resources in recent years to help businesses navigate all levels of government, and to ensure that the sign industry is represented in codes-making bodies at the national level.

Just as these efforts have come from relationships with our members, and efforts to understand their needs, so too will be our successes in ensuring that the point of view of the sign industry is heard.

So often, government relations can be an adversarial relationship with government officials. We’ve chosen a different approach. We understand that city planners receive very little training on sign issues. That’s why we have begun to provide day long training sign code sessions for this important group. Working with The Signage Foundation and local sign associations, we help them understand the technology behind electronic signs, the importance of signs to businesses, and constitutional guarantees that apply to signage. Planners receive not only valuable information that can help them on their jobs, but also credit for continuing education through the American Planning Association.

Now this doesn’t mean that we won’t strongly advocate for our position when we need to. Our government relations team travels frequently to work with local communities on code issues, and to advocate for and testify on behalf of our members. We do so using facts, not emotion. Those facts come from important research that has been done on the industry’s behalf.

At the federal level, it means key participation in organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce, which advocate strongly on behalf of all businesses and manufacturers. It also means connecting with members of Congress to help them understand the importance of sign industry in their districts; we even have joined with local sign companies to sponsor congressional visits to sign shops. Another relational bridge is built as ISA and the sign company now have connected with this representative and the representative has an understanding of a key business in his or her district.

We also build relationships with national code-making bodies by serving on committees or providing comments as they consider developing codes that will be adopted by many local communities. This ensures that the sign industry viewpoint is represented as these codes are developed. It makes more sense to influence these codes before they are enacted rather than attempt to change them in each local municipality.

While ISA has devoted significant staff resources to these endeavors, we could not do any of this without the active participation of our members—all of whom volunteer their time to improve the industry. Their involvement in the local community lets us know when issues arise; the earlier in the process we get involved, the more likely our chances of success. Their expertise also is vital to providing well-developed responses to code issues that arise, at the local level or at the national.

We don’t win every effort that we attempt. But we’ve found that mutual respect, even in disagreement, builds an important bridge to our future working relationship.