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.


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.

5 Things Every Communication Plan Should Have

I’ve been reading about strategic communication lately as I’m helping a client develop an internal communications plan. It’s a topic with which I’m deeply familiar, but it’s a good idea to go back and get a refresher now and then, just in case we become so focused on the work before us that we fail to remember the broader principles that guide it.

There are many models of strategic communication planning out there. The one I like to use is the one outlined by my friend and mentor Les Potter in his book “The Communication Plan: The Heart of Strategic Communication” available from IABC.

I won’t get into details of that planning model here. But as I’ve read and thought about strategic communication plans, I’ve noticed that successful plans must include these things:

  • Clear, measurable objectives that align with organizational objectives. If you aren’t clear on the purpose of communication and if communication activities don’t support the business’s goals, there is no reason to waste resources. If the objectives aren’t measurable, there’s no way you’ll know if communication is providing any value.
  • Research. Unless you understand the current situation, there’s no way to measure the effectiveness of a communication plan. You also must understand the audiences’ information needs, senior management’s expectations and current best practices in communication. All of this comes through research. I believe a communication audit is the best value in research.
  • Executive support and involvement. You are developing a communication plan to support the achievement of business goals. Your organization’s senior management must believe in the value of communication for your planning to happen in the first place and they must play a role in the plan’s development. In addition, senior management must be willing to accept a significant communication role in the implementation phase.
  • All-way communication. A successful plan must include strategies and tactics that promote all-way communication — up, down, and laterally. Communication today is about relationships and conversations that promote information and ideas flowing freely in all directions. This is a significant change brought about by social media.
  • Trust as a foundation. No communication plan will succeed if trust does not exist in an organization. In the context of employee communications, senior management must trust employees enough to share business-related information with them. As employees demonstrate their trustworthiness (by using that information to improve productivity and business performance), business leaders must become more transparent and open. In return, employees will come to trust management enough to act on the information they are given. Trust takes time to build and only a minute to destroy. It is the most critical element of a healthy communication environment.

I believe these five things will enable a strategic communication plan to succeed. Do you have more to add? Please comment with your thoughts.


5 Ways to Put Communication on the Executive Agenda

Many of the communication professionals I know are passionate about what they do. Like any profession, there are people who just sort of ended up here and go about their work half-heartedly, simply doing whatever their boss tells them to do, and there are people who really believe what they do can make a big impact on their company’s success.

I place myself in the latter category and so do many of my friends in the business. Down through the years, however, I’ve heard even the most passionate communicators sing a familiar refrain: “The CEO/President/General Manager doesn’t know the untapped potential of what I do. He/she doesn’t understand communication and really doesn’t seem to care.”

I get this frustration. I’ve been there. Fortunately, many of my employers and clients have been believers in the power of strategic communication. Still, a good number of them have not been.

So, how do you get business leaders to pay attention to communication and make it a priority for the organization? Here are 5 things that can help.

  1. Find a champion. Often, communication professionals are mid-level managers or lower on the organizational totem pole. Sometimes you don’t have the access or influence necessary to put communication on the executive agenda. This is where a champion can help — someone who buys into the gospel of communication and will help you proselytize the decision makers. In most cases, this is someone in your chain of command, but sometimes the higher-ups in your organization are responsible for communication though not formally schooled in it. You might first need to win their hearts and minds before you can win over the chief executive. I witnessed the power of a champion in one client organization. She wielded a lot of influence in the executive suite and won a lot of victories for the communication staff even though she was not a professional communicator.
  2. Be an advocate. I’ve often said that public relations and communication professionals are the worst at publicizing and communicating about our own profession. Sometimes what is needed is an old-fashioned PR campaign for communication. That means first establishing a relationship with the target audience (executive management) and then seeking to influence their thinking about communication. If we don’t advocate for communication, it’s likely no one else will. I did this in a manufacturing facility where I worked for 8 years. Whenever I saw a relevant article or news item about how communication had helped a business, I circulated it among the management team. Before long, they were asking me how our business could get some of what communication had to offer.
  3. Legitimize communication as a business function. Communication is often not on the radar screen of business leaders — or if it is, they see it as a tactical function, not a strategic one. Among the best ways to legitimize communication is to join a professional organization like IABC or PRSA. Even better, volunteer for a leadership role in it. Then make your senior management aware of your involvement (again, a champion can help with this). Accreditation is another way to elevate communication in the minds of executives. When I earned Accredited Business Communicator designation, the general manager of the manufacturing plant where I worked personally congratulated me on the achievement.
  4. Measure the impact of what you do. I’m not just talking about “readership surveys” and web stats about how many hits the intranet gets. Learn how to measure the impact of your work and then make those results known. When that same manufacturing plant sought ISO certification, communication was a significant part of the effort because everyone had to be on board in order to be successful. The communication goal was the same as the business goal: to earn certification, not to publish X copies of a special newsletter or to hold a certain number of meetings. The project manager for ISO certification had the ear of senior management through regular updates on the process. Those updates always included the communication element. Which leads to the next point…
  5. Get recognized for the good work you do. I submitted the communication plan for ISO certification in a statewide IABC awards program — and it won. That kind of recognition helped solidify communication’s place as a vital business function in the mind of the plant manager.

Showing up on the executive radar screen doesn’t happen overnight. It can be a slow chipping-away process and there will be times when you wonder if the effort is worth it. I believe it is. There is not much greater satisfaction for a communicator than knowing the leaders of your business understand and value what you do.