Private actions, public consequences

What One Alfred Place can teach us about how to treat your membership in the age of social media.

The private members club One Alfred Place is a very nice institution. I’ve had delicious lunches, relaxed teas and friendly drinks there, and admired the congenial, professional atmosphere and the people I’ve met.

But there’s trouble in paradise: the new Chief Executive, Sharon Brittan, has been forced to publicly apologise after emailing members to tell them their memberships have not been renewed on the grounds that they use the facilities too much, treating the place like an office. 

This is rather like your parents telling you “you treat this place like a hotel” when you live in a hotel. One Alfred Place’s original raison d’ĂȘtre was to act as an office space for those who don’t want to hire an office and it describes itself on Twitter as being “A Private Members Business Club... a better way to do business”.

I am sympathetic to the management.  The problem is one that many membership organisations grapple with: how do you change what an organisation offers without confusing and frustrating – or simply removing – members who signed up to the original offer and for a particular mission? It makes change very difficult to create in a membership organisation, for good or ill. But there are good and bad ways of handling it.  A good way is to engage your members in the process of change and give them ownership and a democratic say in the journey.  A bad way is to pass down judgements, because it belies the entire apparent strength of a membership club or organisation: that it’s a community where everyone matters.

Robert Loch (who has provided a very clear summary of the run of events including the text of the original email here) uses the Wayback Machine to access the original One Alfred Place site to show what members signed up for.  But even a quick google search reveals this business bias. Or rather, it did on Monday when I first drafted this piece. Now, it’s more dominated by the negative publicity (such as this coverage in the Telegraph and this breaking of the story by the Independent’s Slackbelly) caused by this action from the club’s management.

What’s exciting about these developments – or worrying if you run a membership organisation that wants to treat their members badly – is that it’s no more difficult now to get rid of members than it used to be, but it’s considerably more difficult to get rid of members, or change things without consulting them, and keep it quiet.

I first found out about this story on twitter (via Euan Semple – @euan).  And it has been picked up on the microblogging site by others. But the club seems keen to avoid this kind of reception in the public eye.  Amazingly, even Brittan’s apology (which was on the members page, and pointed to by its most recent tweet) has now been removed, after it was roundly criticised as inadequate. In order to find it again, I had to use a google history search to find the cached page.

It’s here, if you’re looking for it.

Here, Brittan states a concern that “the majority of this debate is being conducted outside the walls of the club and by some who are not privy to the actual matters at hand.”  I would readily admit to being among this number.  But trying to hold back the tide of broader comment about the process of change (no-one, correctly given the need for more information if they were to do so,  seems to be criticising the change itself) is a strategy more fitting to a latter-day King Cnut than an organisation with members who lead lives outside its walls.  Private members clubs can have exclusive memberships, but they need to learn that when it comes to their public profile, power is held as much by the membership as by themselves.  Social media speeds up and broadens the field of transmission.  In effect, it changes the balance of power.

Last updated at 18:53 Wed 17/Feb/10.
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