2012 Annual Report to the Membership
James M. Cudahy, CAE
Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer
In a recent JCR column, President Doug Friend referred to NCRA’s certification programs as the association’s “crown jewels,” and I would struggle to find a more apt and succinct description. When it comes to the integrity of our association and our profession, there is nothing NCRA does on a day-to-day basis that is of more direct and tangible value than our certification programs. The work associated with our certification programs cuts across many different volunteer committees who work with dedicated professional staff devoted in this area to ensure not only that the programs remain in sync with the ever-changing dynamics and body of knowledge of the profession, but also that the programs are implemented in a fair and equitable manner to meet exacting standards.
Therefore, it is critical that if and when changes to our programs are made, the changes are made in accordance with established best practices of the testing community. In Fiscal Year 2012, we made two such changes, both of which will serve the long-term benefit of both the profession and those who participate in the programs. The first change was to the Certified Realtime Reporter (CRR) exam, which moved over to a Q&A format for the first time to align it more closely with real-world application. The second change — the introduction of online testing — affected all of our stenographic skills exams.
In May, after three rounds of beta testing, we conducted skills examinations for a significant portion of our test candidates in a new format. Whereas traditionally the voices that compose the exam material had been delivered on site by a chief examiner playing a compact disc or cassette to an entire room — with the corresponding transcript printed on site — we are in the process of migrating to an entirely digital, online format. Beginning with a selection of exam sites in May and moving to all exam sites in August, the audio will be delivered via a secure site over the Internet to candidates at exam sites, and transcripts will be uploaded back to the same secure site.
While we certainly had our bumps along the way, as one might expect when making such a significant change, the overwhelming majority of candidates were extremely pleased with online testing. The ability to control when they start the audio proved to be surprisingly popular as did the comfort of listening to it over headphones rather than in a large room filled with ambient noise and the inevitable auditory distractions associated with having other reporters in the room. But nothing was as popular as being able to receive a preliminary, if still unofficial, exam result within six hours of completing the exam.
MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS
Coming out of the 2010-2011 Writing Our Future membership dialogue initiative, one of the key priorities identified for NCRA now and in the future is to build wider recognition and appreciation of stenographic court reporting – along with CART and captioning – among key influencers outside the profession. While this already had been established as one of five objectives of NCRA’s Marketing & Communications Plan in 2010, the effort took on more urgency with members verifying its strategic-level importance for the association.
The absolute best tools we have at our disposal for this effort are NCRA members themselves. Thus, a disproportionate focus of our effort is to equip members with tools and resources to deliver positive messages about court reporting to their clients and other influencers within their communities. Last October, NCRA introduced a new enterprise website (www.ncra.org) for members, which represented a more modern, more customized user experience for all, but which likewise included a specific area of membership tools that we populated throughout the year with information and resources – such as presentations, brochures, and flyers – that members can use to become their own best advocates, or as they came to be known: “StenAdvocates.”
That term, “StenAdvocate,” became the new moniker for those members who stepped up to the plate to make a strong case for the profession in a multitude of formats and across various media. Whether they were delivering testimony in front of state legislatures, recording video messaging about ethical standards, or writing letters to the editor that set the record straight about stenographic reporting’s inherent advantages over other methods of capturing the record, we saw StenAdvocates stepping up throughout the nation, and we highlighted them in a new StenAdvocate newsletter.
As we introduced our new website, we also used the opportunity to create a new identity for NCRA based on the new era that was upon us defined by the Writing Our Future initiative. Choreographed with the launch of the new site was the introduction of a new logo that brings specific visual elements of stenography as well as realtime (and, thus, CART and captioning) into the logo in celebration of the skill, training, and expertise of stenographic court reporters. We also introduced a new tagline for NCRA – “Setting the standard for capturing the record” – helping to serve an additional need emerging from Writing Our Future, where members asked that we establish a standard of quality and competence for all methods of making the record. With our new tagline, we are making the explicit statement that stenographic court reporting is that standard.
In looking at the various success stories from Fiscal Year 2012, the one that rises to the top is our grassroots realtime training initiative. One of the specific charges of members from Writing Our Future was that NCRA needs to do more to encourage a larger number of court reporters to become realtime capable. While this has been a message delivered to court reporters for a generation, it is clear from recent research that realtime is the major point of differentiation between stenographic court reporting and other methods. In response, the Board commissioned a task force to examine ways that successful models for grassroots training in realtime, developed in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, could be emulated at a national scale. The task force ultimately took on the moniker “TRAIN,” which stands for “Taking Realtime Awareness and Innovation Nationwide.”
To mix metaphors, the TRAIN program has taken off since its introduction in February. The intention was for the program to help address the obstacles and anxiety that prevent many reporters from writing realtime. The intention also was for the program to go viral, so that a presentation developed first by the task force would be distributed to state leaders and then to members and others to deliver its content to reporters at the local level. To say the TRAIN program has been a success in both regards is a major understatement, as, once the concept was introduced, NCRA received hundreds of requests from would-be volunteers to deliver the presentation at the local level. This included a request for an extended version of the presentation for official reporters in Maricopa County, Ariz., which recently was delivered by two members of the task force (Ron Cook and Sue Terry).
Finally, in this area, in June we introduced a revamped and vastly improved Professional Services Directory (PSL). We continue to see more and more traffic arrive to this dynamic portion of our website, and with more of our marketing efforts directed at building wider awareness and appreciation of steno reporters among external audiences, the need for the PSL to have a more intuitive navigational structure for those not initiated to the lexicon of our profession was in order. Further, there needed to be more explanation as to why a stenographic court reporter and the myriad services they can provide – including CART, captioning, and an abundance of periphery services – always is the best choice.
NCRA’s Marketing & Communications Plan already had providing assistance to schools to recruit more students as a specific objective, and it likewise was verified to be of particular importance during Writing Our Future. In Fiscal Year 2012, we worked directly with our schools to create tools that will help them do a better job – and deliver a more consistent message – as they go out into their communities to encourage more young people to consider court reporting as a profession. In addition to developing customizable templates for brochures and flyers that schools can use to promote their individual programs, NCRA also engaged in a systematic campaign of advertising to build a positive buzz about the profession.
Our efforts included literally tens of millions of impressions made on prospective students through digital advertising on Facebook and Google, which used advanced targeting features to hone in on those with the greatest likelihood of having an interest in court reporting. We also used social media to deliver the message in an informational – rather than straight marketing – format using viral video and a newly created student page within NCRA’s overall presence on Facebook.
As we approach the tail end of the fiscal year, we are putting final touches on a new prospect-focused website that will replace our dated “Best Future” site. The new site and URL will be entitled “careersincourtreporting.com,” and it will serve as the anchor and call to action for all of our marketing and advertising. In the meantime, we also have begun to use print and website banner advertising to turn up the volume on our messaging. We had a print and digital advertisement in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in May with several more placements in that publication planned for the fall, as are placements in School Counselor Magazine.
NCRA’s preliminary budget for Fiscal Year 2013 calls for a large new advertising campaign to support student recruitment, and the association likewise will be devoting attention to other ways that we can get more students into and out of court reporting school. What we have learned to date, however, is that when it comes to messaging aimed at prospective court reporting students, no one can deliver the message in a stronger, more compelling manner than court reporters themselves. Next February, NCRA is planning a publicity blitz around the first ever “Court Reporting Week.” While Court Reporting Week will look more generally to promote the profession through all available means – but in particular by engaging members in the process – a narrower goal of the effort will be to get as many reporters as possible to make presentations in high schools about the opportunities available through a career in court reporting.
It was a busy year for NCRA on the government relations front, buoyed by the recent introduction in the U.S. House of Representatives of the Local Courthouse Safety Act, a bill on which NCRA was asked to serve a lead role for its introduction to Congress. The legislation is bipartisan and common sense in nature in that it would serve to make use of discarded or unused security equipment already owned by the U.S. government by requisitioning it to courthouses around the United States to protect court participants. Because the legislation would, among other purposes, provide some level of protection to official court reporters, NCRA will vigorously support it.
In February of 2012, NCRA held its Legislative Boot Camp for the first time in several years, and based on the value it delivered to state leaders who attended, we plan to offer it again in 2013. Legislative Boot Camp provides two days of intensive, hands-on training to state leaders to prepare them for negotiations with their state and local governments on matters of interest to the court reporting profession. Upon completion of that training, participants then headed to Capitol Hill where they met face-to-face with elected leaders from their states and/or their senior-level staff. This effort not only served to educate hundreds of members of the U.S. Congress on the value of stenographic court reporting, but it also provided another level of preparation for state leaders, if and when their newly acquired lobbying experience is required at the state level.
In the G.R. area, we also attempt to be pro-active, both in pursuing legislation that will be of benefit to court reporters and to the legal system in general. This includes working with schools to continue drawing funds from the Realtime Writers Act, which has appropriated $100 million for the training of new realtime writers over an extended period, and we saw continued distribution of such funding in fiscal 2012.
We also are continually working with volunteer committees to draft legislation and/or to advance studies, either in response to member demand or simply to advance the interests of our members. In Fiscal Year 2012, this included working with the Board-commissioned Task Force on Contracting, which developed model legislation related to third-party contracting. This obviously is a complex issue, but it is one that our members raised continually as needing attention during Writing Our Future. As NCRA President Doug Friend has said, “When it comes to contracting, our position on the issue can never be about our pocketbooks. It must be about doing what is right with regard to ensuring that all parties within the legal process are being treated equitably and, by extension, that the position of court reporter is beyond reproach when it comes to neutrality.” In the end, this is a state – not a national – issue, and it will be the decision of state leaders as to whether they wish to make use of the model legislation established by the task force.
I also am pleased to report that another task force – the Steno Opportunities in the Court Task Force – published a white paper in May based on research completed by the National Judicial College. The white paper is divided into five topic areas, each of which is intended to provide ideas and messaging, supported by data, for how stenographic reporters can work to address the largest challenges facing today’s court systems as well as the court systems of 15 to 20 years in the future. This was an initiative that changed quite a bit as the task force digested the information that arrived from its research, and, in the end, they arrived with a white paper that not only has seen distribution to judges and court administrators, but which also will serve as an important supporting document as states grapple with the continued challenges they will face to position official court reporters in the strongest possible light.
Our Ethics First Task Force likewise was hard at work throughout Fiscal Year 2012, encouraging more members and firms to join the Ethics First Program and in particular raising awareness of the perils of incentive gift giving within the court reporting profession.
As I am writing this document, court reporters are preparing to descend upon Philadelphia for the NCRA Annual Convention and Exposition. While our numbers look to be a bit down from 2011, we nonetheless have a powerful lineup of seminars and social events that will not disappoint. The convention always serves as the premier event within this profession – providing a bevy of opportunities for members to connect, to learn, and to take their careers to the next level. Our convention theme – Dream, Believe, Inspire – is the brainchild of incoming President Tami Smith, and it is intended to match the experience of the convention with the challenges and needs faced by every court reporter as well as the profession itself.
For many years, we had been asked by members to create educational content with a particular focus on technology. For 2012, we set a course to answer this persistent, yet still somewhat ambiguous, charge from the membership in the form of our newest conference, which we called “TechCon.” TechCon took place in February and matched the winter/spring offerings of our Realtime Systems Administrator (RSA) Workshop, our Trial Presentation program, and our Certified Legal Video Specialist (CLVS) program with a selection of educational sessions on technology, which we called “Legal Labs,” and a special Saturday night event called “Ignite,” in which leaders of the profession gave rapid-fire technological advice to attendees in a social environment. The program was a true home run, and we expect – with a year of brand recognition behind us and the attractive setting of Scottsdale, Arizona, in April 2013 – for the program to do even better from an attendance perspective in the coming year.
Our Firm Owners Conference saw record attendance in 2013 as we headed to Palm Beach, Florida, back in February. This exclusive program for firm owners was designed to provide education, but likewise to provide a first-rate opportunity to network and to do business. It has proven to be a winning formula. In Palm Beach, we released the findings from our second annual Firm Owners Economic Benchmark Survey, which has become an extremely popular component of the conference; and the survey is expected to see some major changes for its third iteration based on the enthusiasm and pointed feedback it has generated.
Taking a step back for a moment, while NCRA has been on the cutting edge with regard to delivery of education via the Internet, it’s clear to us that we could be doing more, both to package our existing content for delivery in an interactive, digital format, and also to be looking toward new applications for our members that keep pace with the types of educational programming one expects to see in this day and age. I’m therefore pleased to tell you that at the convention, we will be introducing a new, interactive, online educational game that will allow members to play a game while gaining meaningful education and earning CEU credits to boot. The first game will focus on ethics, but, with the platform and interest established, we will use the same system to deliver all different types of education in the future.
From a more macro perspective, we will use the coming year to do a better job of packaging all of our online education – and perhaps that of our state associations as well as third-party providers – in a central location and portal that will better allow our members to conveniently access education through NCRA and more efficiently fulfill their ongoing CEU requirements.
Over the past decade, NCRA has seen a steady and substantial decline in its membership. In looking to the reasons for such a decline, it’s clear that, to a large degree, we are dependent upon the number of court reporters in the marketplace as a starting point for how many court reporters we can convince to join the association. But it also was clear to us in 2012 that we needed to be exerting every ounce of effort and creative energy that we could summon to ensure that every court reporter and student who can be convinced to join NCRA, does choose to join.
So, in 2012, we mobilized several different efforts to recruit and retain members in a more systematic way. Part of this effort was to employ more effective use of technology as part of our recruitment and retention efforts. Part of this was to create stronger messaging in our appeals. And still another part of this was looking to all different types of media to spread the message about the specifics of why NCRA membership is worthy of its corresponding investment.
To date, we have seen some positive effect of our new efforts, particularly on the retention front, but we’ve also learned a great deal about what it takes to get new members (or lapsed members) to the organization. What we’ve learned is that it doesn’t take one great idea that will have new members banging on our doors; it takes a hundred little ideas – with creative energy and effort behind them – to make sure that we’re turning over every stone and that we’re knocking on every door to get as many court reporters and students to become members to ensure that we are representing the entire profession and benefiting from having every member possible pushing in the same direction as we move to the future.
FINANCE AND OPERATIONS
As has been NCRA’s history, our annual financial audit for Fiscal Year 2011 occurred without incident and with NCRA receiving an “unqualified opinion” from our auditor (CliftonLarsenAllen), meaning that our financial statements were clear and free from any type of misrepresentation.
We finished Fiscal Year 2011 with a deficit and headed into Fiscal Year 2012 with effective plans for a break-even budget, albeit with changes made during the year by the Board that will cause us to make a draw on reserves in accordance with established policies and which will leave the association well above the association industry best practice of having more than 50 percent of annual operating expenses in financial reserve.
From a pure financial perspective, we continue to be challenged by the drop in membership and a corresponding drop in many of the programs and services that effectively rely on our population of members to provide participation and revenue. This includes all of our educational programs, our certification programs, and other less direct areas, such as advertising and purchases from our online store. As mentioned in the membership section, it is imperative that we invest time and energy in the membership recruitment and retention areas, and – over the longer term – truly do whatever we can to encourage more students to enroll in court reporting programs. These people represent the future of the profession, of course, but also represent the future membership of NCRA.
It clearly was a year of substantial change for NCRA, and perhaps it is symbolic that shortly after we arrived back to our headquarters after our 2011 convention in Las Vegas last August, the Washington, DC, area was rocked by an earthquake. While the damage to most of the East Coast was not substantial, the same could not be said for our headquarters building, which sustained significant damage. While the damage was superficial for the most part, it nonetheless took several months for all of the cracks, broken windows, and lighting to be repaired. But the building is now better than new, and perhaps that can be a nice symbol for NCRA as we move forward to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
As we move ahead, we are committed to working more closely, in collaborative fashion with our members, with our state associations, with our vendors, and with strategic partners serving the legal community. As I have traveled the country over the first several weeks of holding the executive director position, it is clear that there exists a degree of enthusiasm for this profession and for this association that is deeper than I ever knew. Having worked at several associations across my career, I can tell you unequivocally that this goes beyond anything I have seen. And it will be among my largest responsibilities to make sure that we are doing everything we can as a staff and as an organization to tap into this energy, to tap into this expertise, and to tap into this community. Yes, we have challenges as a profession and as an association. But when we have as a starting point the will and the commitment that I see present within our membership, our work merely needs to be to direct this energy in a positive direction and not to create such energy. I look forward to doing exactly that.