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 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.