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.

 

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.