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.



Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.



Japan’s Pain is No Laughing Matter

It seems some people just don’t know when to shut up. And in the communication professions, that trait can be treacherous.

Gilbert Gottfried, one of the least funny comedians still getting work, lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck (who knew that was Gottfried all this time?) after he tweeted some decidedly crass comments related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He wasn’t alone. Dan Turner, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Haley Barbour was fired for the same reason.

Both Aflac and Barbour did exactly the right thing. Spend a few minutes watching the horrifying footage coming out of Japan and you quickly realize there’s nothing funny about the catastrophe.

What really bothers me is that anyone would question whether or not the two spokesmen should have been fired. Yet comments on blogs and at communication websites like Ragan.com indicate people — even communicators — push the line between funny and tasteless to the outer limits.

It really makes me wonder what has led us to this point of accepting callousness, especially in the wake of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. Americans were pretty well united in our feeling that there should be a moratorium on wisecracks and gallows humor following 9/11, but the same rules don’t apply for a culture halfway around the world that we really don’t know or understand.

Pondering the reasons why caused me to recall a study I read about recently that found 75 percent of today’s college students report being less empathetic than previous generations and that the trend toward decreased compassion began about 30 years ago.

That sounds about right. I don’t need a study to tell me that people today generally think more of themselves, their needs, their rights, what happens to them than they think about other people. An entire generation (or two?) has been told how special they are, how they are all winners. This mindset yields Gilbert Gottfried making Japan jokes and Charlie Sheen selling out a “show” based on his narcissistic rants following his firing by a TV studio.

My 14-year-old son told me of a classroom discussion at school about the Japan tragedy. He said several guys in the class said they didn’t care what was happening in Japan; it’s half a world away and doesn’t affect them.

The study on students’ lack of empathy suggested that one cause might be the fact that students read less fiction today. Another study finds that reading may be linked to empathy; the number of stories preschoolers read predict their ability to understand others’ emotions. Adults who read less fiction say they are less empathetic.

We corporate communicators might have something to contribute. Perhaps the stories we tell in our organizations help our fellow employees to be more empathetic toward the people with whom they work. It’s certainly worth a shot.

Writing: The No. 1 Skill for Communicators

Let me be unequivocal in how I say this: Writing is the most important skill a professional communicator can possess.

It amazes me that this remains a topic of debate, but it does. This week, our friends at Ragan.com posted an article titled “Does writing well still matter?” (I’m not providing a link because chances are the story will be behind their firewall by the time many of you read this.)

No communicator should have to ask that question. Of course writing well still matters — despite what some PR consultants and even practitioners have you believe. Anyone in a communication profession who suggests otherwise is simply trying to appear leading-edge and oh-so-21st century. The argument goes that in this day of social media, short attention spans and businesses focusing on the bottom line, other skills are more important to communicators — such as strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results.

The truth is strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results flow directly out of a communicator’s ability to assimilate a multitude of information, shape it into a coherent message that supports business objectives, and then articulate that message in ways that will be well received by audiences. That’s what we do. Without a communicator’s ability to write well, all the strategic thinking, problem solving and results focus in the world won’t do us or our employers any good.

To say the ability to write is not the No. 1 skill communicators need is like saying the ability to operate on a patient is not the No. 1 skill a surgeon needs. It’s a ridiculous statement.

You will find no greater advocate of strategic thinking than I. If we don’t bring that skill — along with myriad others — to the table, then we won’t serve our clients or employers well. The ability to write, though, is the must-have for professional communicators.

I’m an adjunct university instructor in public relations and I can tell you the next generation of communicators needs strong instruction in writing. I don’t entirely blame the students. I believe our public school systems largely fail to teach kids to write, but that’s another discussion for another time.

I’m excited to be teaching a Writing for PR class next semester, the first time I’ve taught this particular subject. I can tell you this: the students who take my class will know how to write before they move on. The objective, after all, is to set them up for success in their future careers.