Government relations is typically done with a handshake, but the Direct Selling Association has found ways to connect virtually with legislators and regulators.

Advocacy is traditionally shoe-leather work at associations. Government relations staffers are experts at relationship-building—meeting with legislators, regulators, and their aides to make an association’s case clearly and efficiently. It’s a job practically defined by handshakes and face-to-face meetings. But so much, thanks to COVID-19, for that.

The Direct Selling Association, like most other groups, has had to adjust to the new normal, pivoting its meetings and events online in a hurry. DSA President and CEO Joseph N. Mariano says that in March DSA began ramping up its webinars and shifting its member content to “all virus, all the time.” (Last year, DSA hosted three webinars, Mariano says; this year, it’s hosted around 30.) That’s proven to be successful, especially in terms of its annual meeting, which was originally scheduled to be held earlier this month in Phoenix and instead was held entirely online.

DSA has taken advantage of legislators with more free time to meet.

But COVID-19 hasn’t changed DSA’s advocacy policy priorities, and in some ways it’s made them more complicated. DSA represents companies that sell household goods and health supplements, sometimes through multilevel marketing (MLM)—a structure that some critics equate to a pyramid scheme. Because DSA is mindful of the reputational issues related to the industry, it’s kept a close eye on how COVID-19 has affected it, and how government has responded.

Some of that work means maintaining ties with legislators from a distance. Many state legislatures cut their sessions, which in some ways was beneficial for DSA, Mariano says: “We didn’t have to deal defensively with anything that we might’ve seen in terms of legislation that we had to react to.” But, regardless, it’s held virtual town halls with U.S. congresspersons and senators to discuss member issues as a way to maintain connections—and find opportunities for deeper ones. “We wanted to take advantage of the willingness and ability of people like the senators from Arizona [it hosted virtual meetings with Senators Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema] to get together on webinars and virtual town halls in a way that they would not have made themselves available for prior to the virus,” he says.

That tactic applies to regulators as well. The Federal Trade Commission has sent two sets of warning letters this year to health-supplement MLMs about claims they’ve made about how their products can treat the coronavirus. In turn, DSA released a statement condemning false claims made by companies. Beyond that, it worked to both connect with the FTC and to get its guidance in front of DSA members in as personal a manner as possible, hosting a virtual conversation in May between an FTC representative and Mariano. Conversations between DSA and the FTC are nothing new—“we’ve been agreeing and disagreeing for 30-plus years,” Mariano says. But the context and the virtual environment were by necessity different.

It was the best-attended webinar DSA has done—approximately 500 members Zoomed in. “Our members are keenly interested in what the regulatory officials have to say because of the history of the industry and in some issues that these companies have faced,” Mariano says. “Interestingly, we did not talk about some of the issues that we’ve talked about historically with the Federal Trade Commission continually—things like what constitutes a pyramid scheme versus a legitimate direct selling company. That’s one of our key issues, but rather, and we agreed with the commission, we both wanted it to be focused on representations related to the virus.”

That’s a way for DSA to maintain connections that have the chance to sustain themselves once the pandemic crisis is over. “We already have enough questions about reputation in the marketplace and that we don’t need to have our companies doing distasteful things, much less potentially misleading things about products,” Mariano says. “So it was really important to hammer that message—the commission’s message, amplified by the association.”

MARK ATHITAKIS

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE »