IABC Must Refocus on Chapters

The fallout from the shake-up at the top levels of IABC continue to generate a lot of discussion among members and non-members alike, primarily on LinkedIn and among communication bloggers. The most recent fuel was added to the fire by Paige Wesley, former Communications & Marketing VP for the association, who wrote about her experience as one of the victims of last year’s massive layoff at headquarters. It’s worth a read not only because of the disturbing insight it gives us into the whole mess, but also because of the constructive tone with which she writes, complete with suggestions for how to move forward.

As a lapsed member, my input might not be valued by anyone at IABC. The fact is, however, is that I want to see IABC get back on track, not only because I invested years of my professional life as a member, volunteer leader and zealot, but also because its success is important to the profession. At its best, IABC fills an important need for an association that appeals primarily to corporate communicators as opposed to traditional public relations professionals.

Most observers agree that for IABC to succeed, significant changes need to happen. The specific nature of those changes is up for debate, and has been heavily debated in the last few weeks. A lot of ideas have been tossed out for public consumption, some of them quite specific, like Mike Klein’s reimagining of the governance structure.

To me, the question has less to do with what IABC’s executive board and staff look like than with what they do and where they focus their attention. I believe areas of focus (or strategy, if you want to call it that) are particularly important to IABC’s ability to survive the long haul.

For many years, I’ve believed that IABC has turned its focus toward providing products and services at the global level (Webinars! Conferences! Books! A new website!) and away from the place where IABC members really live: local chapters. This loss of focus began long before Chris Sorek was hired as executive director.

As I wrote in one of the LinkedIn discussions, I believe IABC members primarily want two things from their association:

  1. Networking opportunities where they can meet other communicators, learn from them, vent to them, cry on their shoulders, form professional friendships and perhaps hire them or be hired by them
  2. Education and resources that help them do their jobs better, primarily from meetings and conferences, but also from publications and online sources.

I have no hard data to back this up. It’s based on my 20+ years of experience as an IABC member, two-term chapter president, district director, International Executive Board member and former Accredited Business Communicator. Take it for what it’s worth, but I’m willing to bet I’m pretty much on the mark.

To get back on track, I believe IABC should return to a focus on delivering an excellent member experience at the chapter level. From a global standpoint, that means everything the board does (in terms of strategy, allocation of resources, etc.) should focus on members and chapters, which are the primary means of delivering member services.

IABC at the global level should do just a few things, but do them well: A top-notch World Conference, a first-rate Chapter Leaders Institute, a Research Foundation that members can tap into for best practices and for helping educate their employers as to the value communication adds, and a narrow set of excellent publications that do the same.

Otherwise, IABC Headquarters should be all about supporting chapters and, to a lesser extent, regions: Provide resources to help volunteer chapter leaders manage their chapters efficiently and easily; provide support for local and regional programs and conferences; provide infrastructure so chapters can meet the informational, technological and professional development needs of their members; and provide the mechanism for members to “Be Heard” by their association leadership regarding their needs and expectations.

This is what IABC used to do well and it is what has been largely missing in the last 10+ years.

Such a focus on delivering member services through healthy chapters suggests some pretty specific strategies and policies for the executive board to develop. The board should develop them and hire a competent association executive who understands the business communication profession to carry them out with the assistance of a competent staff.

Until IABC returns to a member focus through chapter support, it will continue to flail and fail – and the next failure might be its last.

 

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IABC Drops the Ball Again, Then Goes Into Defensive Mode

For three years in the mid-1990s, I served on the International Executive Board of IABC. In 1993 and 2003, I served as the president of my local chapter. I was an Accredited Business Communicator until I gave up my membership in favor of PRSA (non-members have to pay a fee to maintain accreditation). I’ve served on committees and task forces at all three levels of the association and I happily sang its praises to anyone who would listen until IABC lost its way several years ago.

So I don’t take any pleasure in what is happening to IABC these days. Late last year, it bungled the communication of a major layoff of headquarters staff. And just yesterday, it dropped the ball again in its announcement that Chris Sorek, president of the association for the last 11 months, has resigned.

As a non-member, I no longer have a vested interest in what happens to IABC. But as someone who gave heart and soul to help ensure its success for many years, it breaks my heart to see one of the world’s largest associations for people in my chosen profession become a laughingstock. Actually, there’s nothing funny about what’s going on.

The main points I’ll make about this latest tragedy of errors are these:

  1. IABC’s staff and volunteer leaders need to update their view of how communication happens in the world. Claiming it wanted to inform chapter leaders first, IABC delayed its own announcement of Sorek’s resignation and the news apparently broke on David Murray’s Writing Boots blog. (David used to cover IABC when he worked for The Ragan Report in the ’90s, including during my term on the International Executive Board, so I know his journalistic prowess and it does not surprise me that he broke the news.) Then, IABC finally posted the announcement on a LinkedIn discussion group because it said its technology “would not allow” it to be posted on its own website. Believing that you can keep news like this secret in the age of social media is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. Instead, IABC leaders — both staff and volunteers — should have sent an alert to volunteer leaders and followed it very closely with official announcements using all the platforms available, including its own website. (There is simply no excuse for not being able to use its own website to post such an announcement.) Then, all hands should have been on deck to respond to the initial flurry of interest by bloggers like Murray and industry journalists like those at Ragan.com. Talking points are fine to ensure consistency, but the point here is that leaders should have been armed and ready to talk as soon as the news broke instead of appearing disconnected and aloof.
  2. IABC spokespersons should give up their defensiveness, acknowledge that the association is in rough shape right now with respect to its leadership, its technology and its communication processes, and stop trying to control and spin the message. Again, this is 2013. The rules (if there are any) have changed. Claire Watson, ABC, who has been hired to speak for the association, defensively engaged in one LinkedIn conversation that included her questioning Murray’s ethics and those of volunteer leaders and her eventual pronouncement, “End of conversation.” That’s not the way to engage media or members and it certainly sends the wrong message about how IABC might handle things going forward.

I sincerely hope IABC uses these crises as opportunities to look deep within and to rethink not only its strategy for growing and sustaining the association, but also how it communicates and engages with members — who, after all, own IABC.

 

IABC Has Lost Its Way

The mess in which IABC finds itself as a result of the bungled communication around the layoff of half its staff is so sad that to say much about it here would just be piling on. I can’t improve on the justified criticism laid out by other leading communicators including Shel Holtz, David Murray and even industry icon Roger D’Aprix, who lamented, “”I have literally spent a career fighting the sort of Friday afternoon massacre carried out by new IABC executive director Chris Sorek.”

I’ll just say that today’s IABC is not the organization I loved and to which I gladly volunteered years of my professional life as an accredited member, chapter president, district director and executive board member. IABC has losts its way, in a big way, and I only hope it can find its way back. The key to its comeback, I believe, will be a renewed focus on its lifeblood — members and volunteer leaders at the local level.

I allowed my membership to lapse, thus giving up my accreditation, a year ago out of frustration with how far IABC has strayed. Here’s hoping they figure out how to attract people like me back to their membership.

 

Drop the Membership Requirement for Accreditation in PR

Last year, while still a self-employed communication consultant, I allowed my membership in the International Association of Business Communicators to lapse. When I did, I immediately lost my Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) status, which I had earned in 1992.

I had been an IABC member for 23 years before ending my membership. I had been president of the Richmond, Va., chapter twice, district director for two years and served on the international executive board for three years. However, I didn’t have an employer to pay for my memberships in both IABC and the Public Relations Society of America. I chose to stick with PRSA because it better meets my needs at this point in my career and due to dissatisfaction with IABC’s focus on products and programs rather than the member experience.

When I dropped IABC, my accreditation went away, as if I never had it.

Accreditation was a point of pride for me, but it was also valuable in other ways. The ABC process is rigorous. It includes submitting a portfolio of work and sitting for a thorough written and oral exam. (PRSA’s Accreditation in Public Relations process is even more so.) Achieving the designation was like receiving a seal of approval from my profession. I can’t directly quantify its value in terms of getting higher salaries or better jobs – I got my current job without having the letters behind my name – but I do believe ABCs are looked upon as leaders in the profession, just as those who have the APR label.

I pay more attention when I read articles or listen to presentations by accredited communicators. I figure they have the body of work and the recognition of their profession that lends a bit more credence to what they have to say.

Accreditation also opens doors. At chapter meetings and conferences, I had a conversation starter when I ran into other ABCs or APRs. Accreditations aren’t exclusive clubs, and most accredited members don’t look down their noses at peers who are not accredited, but having an ABC did create an immediate camaraderie.

It’s time to remove the “members only” requirement for accreditation in IABC and PRSA. Lack of membership in IABC doesn’t mean I suddenly became less experienced or knowledgeable about my profession. It simply means I could no longer afford, or no longer found value in, membership. IABC does give me the option of preserving my accreditation for an annual fee (which I won’t do). It’s just another way to make money rather than focusing first on what’s right for the profession – which is one of my gripes about IABC in the first place.

PRSA requires ongoing professional development and public service, making the APR a more meaningful designation that goes beyond simple membership. Beyond the membership requirement, the APR at least helps to strengthen the profession. IABC should adopt similar conditions and drop the membership requirement. Both designations would then serve the public relations profession by setting standards through their accreditation programs rather than simply using them to add numbers to their membership lists.

P.S.: There’s an interesting, relevant discussion going on over at Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks blog about her proposal to somehow regulate the public relations industry. One idea is for required accreditation to be the mechanism for setting some sort of minimum competency level for PR professionals. Of course, the first step in that scenario would be removing the membership requirement for accreditation by either IABC or PRSA.

Are social skills silently fading away?

A few months ago I made a list of what I believe to be the fundamental skills every professional communicator should have in order to succeed. It’s a good list, but now I feel that I left out a skill that’s not only crucial for communicators, but for people in all walks of life: Social interaction. In real life. Not online.

A few things caused me to realize the importance of social interaction as a business and personal skill.

One was a holiday conversation with members of my family, some of whom have Facebook pages and use them regularly and some of whom do not. One of my sisters questioned the value of Facebook and said, “I don’t have the time for it. I’m busy enough trying to keep up with my life as it is.” As a regular Facebook user, I pointed out that it helps me manage my friendships and adds a certain depth to them that I otherwise would not experience.

But I have to admit that it would be very easy to slip into what author and “lifetyle expert” Judith Wright calls a “soft addiction” to Facebook — or Twitter or e-mail or any other electronic media, for that matter. An interesting article by Melissa Ruggieri in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch looked at this phenomenon. She quotes Wright as saying a soft addiction is a seemingly harmless activity that negatively affects the way we live.

So if you find yourself constantly checking Facebook, Twitter or e-mail or if you feel anxious when you can’t do so, you might have a soft addiction to them. If your participation in social media — or in any other activity — keeps you from developing and nurturing real-life, face-to-face relationships with friends and family, then things might just be a bit out of hand.

Another holiday conversation brought this point back to the communication profession. In a much-too-rare visit with my mentor and best friend Les Potter, our talk turned to the future communicators he teaches in the Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies at Towson University. Les continuously reinforces the importance of “face time” and the interpersonal social skills that his students will need when they join the workforce — even as they use social media tools in their profession. Nothing replaces real-life interaction for quality of communication. Body language, tone of voice and human warmth simply cannot be replicated online.

Les also bemoaned his experience at last year’s IABC World Conference — not because the program lacked quality, but because the hallway conversations, the impromptu discussions at the hotel lobby bar and the camaraderie that once were highlights of the annual event were missing. “Everyone was buried in their cell phones, texting and tweeting,” Les said. “People didn’t pay attention to the other people around them. I felt invisible.”

Anyone who knows Les knows that he doesn’t require constant attention or validation. But who can blame him for feeling walled out of his professional colleagues’ electronic worlds?

I believe social media have great value in the new communication landscape. They are changing the way business is transacted and they are changing the way we communicators do our jobs. They offer many benefits in terms of creating niche communities and bringing far-flung people together. I love keeping in touch with family, friends and business colleagues through social media.

However, I fear the art of social interaction is being lost as a result of too much reliance on social media. And I believe instructors of the next generation of communicators — and of business people in general — and stewards of our profession have an obligation to ensure social interaction skills don’t silently fade away.

IABC Chapters Need Help — Now!

My communication career flashed before my eyes last night. No, it wasn’t a dream or a momentary panic attack that caused the flashback. It was a reception sponsored by IABC/Richmond.

I’m a member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Nothing against PRSA — the Richmond chapter is a fine group that offers great programs — but IABC holds a special place in this communicator’s heart. In some ways, however, my heart is breaking. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Last night’s reception was like a class reunion. Some of us who grew up in IABC/Richmond had a wonderful time recalling our first meeting and many memorable events since then — certain speakers, chapter leaders, interesting meeting venues, international and regional conferences, long-time friendships.

I thought about the milestones of my career so far and how IABC is a common theme among them:

  • I remember the first person I met at an IABC meeting — Dawn Stuart, ABC. She remains a friend today, though she now lives in a different state.
  • I met my mentor and best friend — Les Potter, ABC — when he came to speak to our chapter as vice-chairman of the association in 1991. That first encounter with Les changed the course of my career in numerous ways.
  • I became an Accredited Business Communicator in 1992. It served as a significant barometer of my career up to that point and led me to learn skills and gain experience where I needed to.
  • I served three years on the IABC Executive Board, which enabled me to meet top communicators from all over the world, to visit interesting cities I otherwise might not have visited, and to learn how to lead.
  • I have served two terms as president of my home chapter, which also gave me much-needed experience in leadership and management.
  • I have made more friends than I can count — communicators from all over the world, many of whom are the “rock stars” of our profession.

My membership and participation in IABC has opened countless doors for me and prepared me for the work I’m doing now. I owe a lot to the association.

That’s why it breaks my heart that my home chapter and many others like it are struggling to retain members, much less grow, and to attract more than a handful of people to monthly meetings. Even more heartbreaking is that the leadership of IABC — both volunteer and staff — don’t seem interested in doing anything to help.

IABC has focused its attention on global growth and services provided at the international level, especially over the last 10 years. This is a fine and appropriate thing for a global organization to do — but not at the expense of local chapters. Chapters are where IABC members live. If we lose the chapters, we lose the lifeblood of the association.

IABC/Richmond once was considered a leader among mid-sized chapters. It was vibrant and active. As we recalled last night, coming to an IABC/Richmond meeting was an energizing experience. Now the chapter is struggling, but it is not because of mismanagement or lack of effort by local volunteers. Understanding the problem — and, more important, what to do about it — requires more resources and experience than IABC/Richmond leaders can muster. And the Richmond chapter is not alone. This scenario is playing out in many other chapters, especially in North America.

It’s interesting that just this week I received a mass e-mail from IABC — over the signatures of IABC Chairman Mark Schumann, ABC, and President Julie Freeman, ABC, APR — that tells of a soul-searching exercise the association is undertaking right now. “We recognize that IABC needs to stay relevant and in touch with its members, others in the profession, and the business community,” they write, and the IABC Executive Board is working on ways to do so, including the administration of a member survey.

I hope IABC members send a strong message that the association should do more to support the health of local chapters. The experience and expertise of IABC volunteer leaders and staff should be focused on helping chapters figure out ways to boost local membership and participation. We need help. I’ve served on my chapter’s board numerous times and have tried to help crack this nut, but it’s time to call in the reinforcements.

It would be a shame to watch IABC die from the ground up, but that is what will happen if chapters don’t receive the support they need and deserve.