The Convention Industry Council has launched a public messaging task force to improve the image of meetings, the latest industry effort to battle the negative public perception of events and business travel. CIC has hired Y Partnership Inc., a well-known advertising, public relations, and marketing company in the hospitality industry, to develop half a dozen key messages for CIC’s 34 member associations to use for internal and external communications this fall.

The work of the task force will complement the U.S. Travel Association’s Meetings Mean Business campaign, launched earlier this year to fight the public perception that corporate meetings are non-essential and often excessive.

“As an industry, we need to articulate the key values in face-to-face human interaction,” said task force Co-Chair John Graham, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. “We know it innately, but all of our industry organizations need to be saying it explicitly, and saying the same thing.”

CIC Chief Strategy Officer Gregg Talley stressed the need for close coordination between U.S. Travel’s legislative work and the public messaging developed by CIC and other industry organizations. “One thing that has become abundantly apparent is that if we don’t play in the process, the process plays us,” Talley told MeetingsNet Extra. “We may be restricted as nonprofit organizations in how much [legislative activity] we can be involved in legally, or even from a resource allocation standpoint. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t engage our individual members to make their elected representatives aware of the importance of this industry.”

Talley said there is no restriction on the steps industry organizations can take to mobilize their members and encourage individual lobbying. However, approaching legislators directly is a different story. Meeting Professionals International, which is incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit under the U.S. tax code, has only limited ability to engage in direct lobbying. As 501(c)6 organizations, CIC and the Professional Convention Management Association face fewer legal restrictions.

But either way, Talley said, U.S. Travel is in the best position to carry the legislative battle. “I actually think the combination works well,” he said. With multiple voices in a political fight, “it would be hard to coordinate all our contacts and efforts on the Hill. We would end up bumping into each other, rather than empowering one organization while the others rally the troops.”

Jeff Busch, MPI’s vice president of strategic communications, agreed that U.S. Travel is speaking well for all elements of the industry coalition. “Sure, they’ve got an underlying emphasis on the travel component, but they’re taking a unified message to legislators from all the associations,” he said. If groups like MPI and PCMA tried to go it alone, “I don’t know that we would have the proper funds or resources to lobby on the meeting and event industry side.”

Brad Lewis, PCMA’s vice president of marketing and communications, said U.S. Travel “does have the staffing and resources for lobbying. It’s best to have one voice out there and coordinate the messages that are getting through.”

But an attempt to unify the industry’s voice hasn’t stopped one group of meeting professionals from announcing its own communications effort. Last month, the 3,000-member Meetings Community (MeCo), an online home for meeting professionals, unveiled Yes2Meetings, a campaign to counter negative media coverage of meetings and events.

After querying MPI, MeCo received a four-page summary of the association’s response to the attack on meetings. But MeCo leadership still concluded that “there is no real voice designated to speak up on behalf of meetings to those outside the meetings industry,” said moderator Andrea Gold. “Our main goal is to communicate the value of meetings and to erase the negative perception of meetings to the general public, to top management of businesses, and possibly even to the government.”

Gold said the campaign, intended as a grassroots effort that maximizes the use of social networks, “will go as far as MeCo members and Yes2Meetings MeCo moderators wish to take it.” Late last week, Yes2Meetings had attracted 38 followers on Twitter and generated two outbound messages.

Gold and MeCo moderator Pat Ahaesy questioned whether industry associations have carried their message beyond the meetings industry itself, and whether U.S. Travel’s focus is broad enough to include meetings and events. But other veteran meeting professionals worry that projects like Yes2Meetings could divide the industry’s voice.

“If MeCo is out there doing one thing, then other associations get on that bandwagon and start doing something else, they will do nothing but dilute and confuse the message,” said industry consultant and attorney Tyra Hilliard. “I don’t know whether lobbying directly is as effective as offering assistance to U.S. Travel and making sure our message becomes a part of the bigger package.”

Talley said the concern about U.S. Travel’s focus reflects “a philosophical issue of where meetings fit.” Meetings are arguably about travel, hospitality, education, and communications, “but we have to come back to where those circles intersect to have an impact on the immediate issue,” he said. “CIC and the meetings organizations have to deliver the data and messaging to better inform what U.S. Travel is doing and saying as it relates to meetings.”

Of CIC’s 34 member organizations, the following are participating in the new task force: ASAE & The Center, Destination Marketing Association International, MPI, PCMA, International Special Events Society, International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Site (the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives), and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc.