It’s a matter of respect, IABC

IABC World Conference

IABC’s annual world conference, regional and Chapter events are key occasions in the calendars of many of the 15,000 members around the world as venues to listen, learn and meet friends and make new ones. Photo from the IABC 2009 World Conference album on Facebook.

For the past few months, a growing discussion has been going on in the LinkedIn group of IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators. It’s a conversation that has brought to the surface a wide range of passionate commentary and opinion among some IABC members regarding how the organization communicates with the members on certain issues.

It’s also brought to the forefront opinion and questions on other issues that have been simmering for years.

All of this is what my podcasting partner Shel Holtz and I would unhesitatingly call a kerfuffle, a word we use often in our weekly business podcast to describe an organizational issue like this, one that could quite easily deteriorate into a genuine crisis that will affect reputation at the very least.

It’s also a situation that has troubled me greatly in these past months, to the extent that I have hesitated – and continue to do so – on whether to re-join a professional association that I joined in 1989 and remained active as a member, volunteer and leader until November 2012.  I became an accredited member in 1994. As a leader, I’ve been a Board member of the UK Chapter, Director of the then-called Europe/Africa Region and a member of the International Executive Board and Executive Committee.

In total, 23 years of continuous dues-paying membership. Since then, I have been a lapsed member. (As I’ve heard not a word from anyone in IABC about that, perhaps to ask why I didn’t renew after so many years, I guess no one has even noticed.)

If you’re an IABC member, you’ll now be aware of the changes proposed by the Executive Board to the association’s professional development programme, IABC accreditation, through member emails last month. You’ll know about the restructuring that took place in November 2012 that saw half of the employees at the San Francisco headquarters being let go – made redundant, laid off – some immediately, others over the following months. You’ll know that the membership CW magazine is becoming a digital-only publication. And you’ll know about the confusion surrounding proposals for speaking sessions and exhibitor stands at the 2013 international conference.

Such news oozed out into LinkedIn and Facebook via individual IABC members who had heard about the changes being implemented and those proposed; there was no formal organized communication that suggested a plan had been devised to effectively communicate such news to members.

Indeed, formal communication from the association’s leadership – that’s the volunteer-comprised Executive Board and the employed CEO – about these matters has been, in a word, ineffective if not simply bad. The only public communication was in early December when an official statement (undated) was posted on the IABC website. Other than a video of CEO Chris Sorek and current IABC Chair Kerby Mayers, recorded in November prior to the HQ restructuring, there has been no other public communication, certainly none I can find on the website.

Ragan had a good assessment of things in a post in December. That same month, David Murray posted a candid assessment of a Q&A webinar for members he listened to. Jack O’Dwyer has been commenting frequently about these troubles and other matters. And in the meantime, the comments keep coming in to that LinkedIn group discussion – over 250 from members in multiple threads as I write these words. I participated in the LinkedIn conversation in its early stages but haven’t since I let my membership lapse.

The issue, the kerfuffle, that has prompted the wide-ranging and, at times, lively LinkedIn conversation isn’t about the changes to Accreditation or the layoffs at HQ or any other matter related to IABC and structural changes. No, it’s more fundamental than that.

It’s about communication or, rather, lack of it.

For me – and, it seems, for others in that discussion – it’s about a sense of disbelief bordering on anger that the current leadership of a professional body I have believed in for over two decades can behave either so arrogantly or so cluelessly (I can’t decide which, or which is worse) over issues that are so clearly of huge concern to all members yet appear to be inconsequential to those current leaders. That’s illustrated by the complete lack of engaging communication in a place of semi-open discussion (you have to be a LinkedIn member to see it and an IABC member to join it) that was followed, eventually, by lame communication in that same place.

What has prompted this post, this micro-essay of getting something off my chest, was a comment yesterday to one of the LinkedIn discussion threads by Roger D’Aprix. I first met Roger twenty years ago – we both were working for the Mercer consulting firm at the time, he in the US me in the UK – and he has been a big influence on my thinking and beliefs about organizational communication. If you’ve not yet read Roger’s seminal work Communicating for Change: Connecting the Workplace and the Marketplace, I strongly recommend it.

What Roger said in his comment as a reply to another member’s comment (I don’t wish to say other names as it is not a fully-public discussion) struck me as getting right to the heart of the matter:

[…] Change communication must take place in stages as any good change agent understands. First, the audience must be prepared for the change with a solid business case for making the change. Second, it should be told exactly how the new strategy addresses the compelling forces that dictate the change. And third, it must have an opportunity to engage by raising questions and objections that might affect the strategy. The final –and most important stage–should be modifications in the strategy to match the legitimate concerns of the audience.

It’s a powerful reminder of an effective approach to such communication at a time like this, one that you would expect those in a leadership role in a professional body representing professional communicators to readily and clearly understand.

But there’s more. Roger adds further comment about the Board’s lack of grasp, perhaps even understanding, and how it looks like their communication has been selective, between themselves and only a few other members, and then springing the changes on the membership. Roger says:

[…] I can’t think of a worse change strategy or one that’s more destined for failure. It’s a bit like throwing the change elements into a pond and then jumping in after them while trying to assemble the change strategy, hold your breath and tread water all at the same time.

Is it too late? I don’t think so. People are already showing signs of sympathy. But as this unfolds you better be aware of how to implement change in the proper sequence with the willingness to accommodate and admit error.

I pray that Roger’s concluding remarks are on the button.

For me, though, I have lost my respect for IABC and I don’t know if I can get it back.

[Update Feb 4:] I just spotted a page on the IABC website that I didn’t see when I wrote this post on February 3 (is that a testament to my poor search methodology or IABC’s hard-to-find-info website, I wonder). The undated page, in the public area of the website and with no attribution as to who wrote the content, is entitled “Additional End of Year Q and A now available” and introduces its content with this summary:

What follows are answers to questions that have come up since we conducted the end of year question and answer webinar with IABC’s International Executive Board Chair Kerby Meyers and Executive Director Chris Sorek on 19 December 2012.

Among the questions answered are about the Accreditation programme, IABC Research Foundation, the IABC business plan, membership growth, organizational and operational objectives, and more – all the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a member communication (which may have been done since December but, as a lapsed member since November, I haven’t seen).

It’s all good (although check how David Murray saw things, as I mentioned earlier), adding some formal words from someone in the leadership area to fill the vaccuum that’s currently being dripped into in the conversation among members in that LinkedIn group.

But is it good enough? It seems to me that information is coming in dribs and drabs as a reaction to the calls and critiques by members in the LinkedIn discussion. From glancing through the latest comments on LinkedIn, I see comment from some Board members there. Are those the “official views” of the current leadership, on behalf of IABC, or simply opinion expressed by those members? Hard to tell. And where’s the proactivity?

It’s always easy to be critical, and I’m trying very hard to see more than just a glimmer of the hope that Roger D’Aprix talked about. But based on what I do see, I can only conclude that if this is a communication strategy – for crisis, change or any other reason – then I’m a banana (to borrow the core of another quote).

[Update May 12:] New post: An opportunity for IABC to care.

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.