How high is the reboot bar for IABC?

Every time I hear about IABC these days, I suffer a continuing feeling of sadness.

The news this past week about the professional association for communicators does little to change that feeling where that news is all about financial loss (again), leadership issues, and an unclear future.

On June 4, long-time IABC commentator David Murray – often seen by IABC’s leadership as its nemesis by asking questions the leadership don’t like being asked, never mind answering – published a guest post by former IABC Executive Director Julie Freeman on the state of IABC’s financial affairs as revealed in its 2013 financial statement that Murray says was leaked to him a month ago.

Freeman took the helm at IABC in 2001 in the wake of a previous financial crisis. She left IABC in 2011.

And IABC critic Jack O’Dwyer posted a stark report on June 5:

International Association of Business Communicators lost $529,073 in 2013 as revenues dipped $692,486. A loan of $250,000 was taken to fund a new website.

[...] Revenues declined 10.8% to $5,666,483 from $6,350,927 in 2012. Net assets declined 43.7% to $680,013 from $1,209,086. Its deferred dues account, representing services owed to members over the course of the dues year, was $1,499,364 or about half of dues income of $2,917,858.

Julie Freeman’s post summarizes the key financial metrics in the financial statement and continues by setting out eleven specific questions she says IABC members ought to be asking at the association’s AGM on Tuesday June 10 during the 2014 IABC World Conference taking place in Toronto, Canada:

    1. Where did revenues fall short of budget and why?
    2. What were IABC’s major expenditures in 2013? How did these expenses serve members?
    3. General and administrative expenses increased 56% in 2013. What was the reason for this huge increase in expenses in this area?
    4. Board expenses increased 25%. Faced with declining revenues, how can the Board justify this increase?
    5. At the end of 2013, IABC’s cash and cash equivalents were $42,172, a decline of $495,117 from 2012. Does IABC have sufficient cash to make its debt payments and pay ordinary operating expenses in 2014? How will it do so?
    6. The Consolidated Statements of Financial Position (the Balance Sheet) includes Intangible Assets of $552,067. What does that include? How was that determination made?
    7. Several years ago the IEB approved establishment of an operating reserve and a special project reserve. How much should be in each of those funds? How much is currently there?
    8. What is the contract dispute related to the website development? How can members be assured that new web developer will not have the same issues? When can members expect a new website?
    9. What impact will the association’s current financial position have on its ability to recruit a qualified Executive Director? What is the status of that search?
    10. What is the current IABC membership? How does that compare to prior years?
    11. What is IABC’s current financial situation? What is the IEB doing to ensure that IABC will finish 2014 with a positive net? And will it keep members updated about finances before June 2015?

In my view, these are reasonable questions under the circumstance, ones I would expect members to receive credible answers on without obfuscation, fudge or dodging, and in a spirit of genuine openness and transparency.

Will that happen? Well, we’ll see on Tuesday although incoming IABC chair Russell Grossman offers a sense of optimism about this and what the new Executive Board will be doing in the nature of his response to Freeman’s guest post on David Murray’s blog in a comment to it, even if that response contains a few thinly-veiled barbs directed at Julie Freeman.

A key comment in that response:

[...] IABC’s International Executive Board is focused on creating alternate business models as part of our 2014 – 2017 Strategy (which has been open to member consultation during the last year) and our new Executive Director, when onboarded, will also be required to focus on short-term revenue generation as a primary objective, to help us make up the difference on lower income from membership dues and conference income.

Finally, the one thing we continue to need to get better at is, ironically, communication.

Our member communication is now much better than it was – and thanks to our hard working staff for that. The journey continues however – there is way more to go – and I personally am committed to further and rapid improvement.

Ah, yes, a search for a new Executive Director – the role Freeman had – in the wake of the awful debacle surrounding Chris Sorek whose short-lived tenure ended when he quit that role in May 2013. The good news is that one has been found and hired – Carlos Fulcher’s appointment will be announced at the Toronto conference.

Given that I’m not an IABC member, you may wonder why I’m writing this post.

I used to be an IABC member. Indeed, I was a member for 23 years – an accredited member (ABC) for 19 of those years – until November 2012, and served the association and the profession in a wide range of volunteerism roles during this time.

You don’t just dismiss a 23-year association, a belonging, with a group of people whose values you believed in and whose professionalism and friendships you admired, no matter what’s currently going on. I still care enough to devote some time and thought to writing this post which, if nothing else, will serve as a personal bookmark on my website along with the other things I’ve written about IABC over the past decade.

Organizations can (and do) go through crises – just read the business pages on any day. I recall the part I played for IABC in a crisis in Europe when I took on a rebuilding role as Director of the then Europe/Africa Region in 2002, a role I fulfilled until 2004. It’s the kind of task that requires you to have a  pretty thick skin, frankly, a clear belief in the heart of something (IABC in this case), and clear vision if you work with similar believers as I did at that time (notably, IABC members like Barbara Gibson, Marcus Ferrar and Allan Jenkins; and staff leaders like Julie Freeman and the team at the San Francisco headquarters).

So I trust that the AGM on Tuesday also serves the higher essential purpose of uniting voices – unlike last year’s  town hall meeting, although I believe the circumstance aren’t exactly the same today – perhaps taking a literal embrace of the slogan of this year’s conference:

  • Engage
  • Transform
  • Ignite

I hope that reboot bar I mentioned isn’t set too high.

Customer disservice from Virgin Media

Technical stuff

I thought I was over writing posts about ineffective customer service, the kind of thing that was pretty common four or five years ago.

The type of customer service that revolves around call centres and staff that, while friendly and polite enough, either couldn’t move outside their scripted processes, and/or didn’t have accurate information, and/or different call centre people had conflicting information.

The type of poor customer service from Virgin Media that I’ve written about in the past. (There’s worse if you remember Virgin Media’s predecessor incarnation, NTL, and ntl:hell from the early 00s.)

Sadly not the case as far as my experience with Virgin Media yesterday and today is concerned. And, equally sadly, it seems the scripted responses have now made it to their Twitter account.

  • Incidentally, if this type of content in my blog isn’t of interest to you, then please by all means choose something else to read or share. Might I suggest “Instagramming NYFW,” looking at what fashion brands are doing with Instagram and some great ideas for marketers.

Here’s a concise chronological timeline of what happened yesterday:

  1. On May 16, broadband internet and cable TV services went offline at about 3pm according to my wife. She called Virgin Media’s 150 support number and, summarizing it all, she was told that: a) there’s a service fault in our postcode area, b) engineers are working on fixing it, and c) full service will be back but potentially not until about 11pm.
  2. I got home at about 6.30pm – still no TV or broadband. I called 150 to get an update.
  3. I drilled down the voice response menu system and chose ‘TV fault’ – there is not a choice to talk to a single person about faults on more than one service.
  4. The service agent I speak to is polite and helpful; he asks me to reboot the V+ box which I do. TV screen then says ‘digital TV service will start soon’ or words like that. Agent tells me all will be fine in a few minutes. But those few minutes turn into six minutes or so: clearly something’s not right.
  5. Agent agrees and tells me he’ll book an engineer to come on Monday, between 8am and midday. He says the service may be offline until then, but the engineer will fix things. He asks me for my mobile number, saying the engineer will text me on Monday morning to say what time he’ll be here. And if service does come back before then, would I call and cancel the engineer (which I agreed to do). He then offers to transfer me to someone I can talk to about the lack of broadband service.
  6. So I get another service agent, equally polite and friendly, to whom I recount the story once more. He asks me to restart the Virgin Media superhub modem, which I do. To no avail – not all lights light up and the agent says he can see on his screen that no internet service is reaching my property. So he says the engineer who’s coming on Monday will fix it.

And that was that. A weekend awaiting us with no broadband internet and no cable TV. We have alternatives if we choose, eg, mobile phones that can act as modems, Freeview TV and, of course, an extensive DVD and Blu-ray library.

But when I awoke this morning, I saw the broadband service was up and running again, as was the cable TV. Hooray! I thought about cancelling the engineer’s visit for Monday so I logged in to my account on the Virgin Media website.

And see straightaway that no engineer is booked!

You don't have any engineer appointments

[Read more...]

Redefining today’s communicator in Norway

Communications Day 2014When I look at the landscape of the communication profession around Europe, I see similar issues that concern communicators, most notably how strategic are communicators (and the profession itself), abiding by codes of conduct and practicing ethical behaviour, and being professional.

It’s a topic in the front of my mind as I finalise plans for a keynote presentation to the members of the Norwegian Communications Association on March 27.

The devil’s in the detail, of course, and what’s hot in one country isn’t necessarily at the same temperature in another.

In the UK, for instance, a current strong focus is on professionalism following the findings published by the CIPR last month in its ‘state of the profession’ survey and a clear call to action by CIPR President Stephen Waddington who asked, “How serious are PR practitioners about putting their ambition to be considered a professional into practice?”

I do wonder at times how serious people really are: behaviours people say they want to emulate too often don’t match what I see people do.

Actually, I think this is a very hot issue everywhere even if many individuals may not realise it is. You only have to read the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014 – the results of a survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries – to get a sense of why it’s hot.

So while professional associations like the CIPR and the Norwegian Communications Association look at the big picture and ways to galvanize action among its members, I’m focused on what individuals can and must do to be professional, whatever their role in organizational communication and whatever their level in their organizations.

On March 27, I’ll be in Norway at Communications Day 2014 (or, rather, Kommunikasjonsdagen 2014 – hashtag #komdagen) to deliver a keynote presentation that I’ve titled “Redefining Today’s Communicator.”

From the description on the event website:

Today’s communicator must, as never before, have clear vision and understanding of how communication and the communicator are key strategic assets that support measurable business objectives. Today’s communicator has a key role to play in the rapidly-changing landscape that embraces organization change, behavioral change and technology change; and the online world where the three intersect.

In an age where anyone can claim to be a communicator in business, Neville Hobson will illustrate what professional communicators must do to prove their relevance and context in what they do for their employers and clients.

A pretty broad brush, but I intend to speak to that big topic of professionalism and present some ideas on what we all need to do. I want it to be a relevant piece of the jigsaw, the whole of which will be revealed by presentations from others on the day – Michael Murphy, for instance, talking about the challenges, disruptive influences and opportunities which are shaping the communications functions of the future; and Sigbjørn Aanes, State Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, talking about “communication, sausages and politics” (can’t wait to hear that one!).

The organizers tell me that over 520 communicators will be there on March 27 – a really great representation of the communication profession in Norway.

There’s still time and space to sign up if you haven’t yet. And right below is a bit more information – an ad that was published in a Norwegian magazine last month.

Looking forward to being part of your day!

 Kommunikasjonsdagen 2014

How serious are PRs about being genuinely professional?

So many embargoed press releases...

A simple, musing, rhetorical, tweet on Monday evening about PRs who send out press releases under embargo prompted a wide-ranging conversation on Twitter among a handful of people about professional behaviour, education and training, and being prepared for the PR workplace.

Sending out press releases under embargo isn’t an unusual practice. On the contrary, it can be a worthwhile activity for a PR professional, agency or client-side, when you want to enable journalists and others you believe can help tell your story be as prepared as possible and be ready to go live at an agreed future time.

What prompted my tweet was the sense of despair I feel all too often these days upon receiving press releases under embargo from PRs I don’t know or with whom I have no actual relationship.

And relationship is key, in my view. I’ve always regarded making any public announcement under embargo part of a process of trust-building, where both parties to an embargo have, beforehand, mutually agreed to respect the terms of it.

That requires some kind of prior personal connection, either physical or virtual, between two parties that is the building block for a relationship of some kind.

What I see nowadays, though, has nothing to do with relationship (nor, hence, trust-building or even respect) when I get press releases embargoed for days forward from people I don’t know and with whom I’ve not agreed any terms of any embargo.

They just send out the press releases anyway, usually mail-merged in bulk to distribution lists built from Vocus or Cision subscription databases – in spite of clear guidance from those two respected firms that you’re not supposed to do that – and with little or no thought to understanding whether the press release contains information that is at least relevant to the receiver.

Relevance is a highly significant aspect of this. The worst case is when I get an embargoed press release from a PR I don’t know, and it’s totally irrelevant to me.

Remember An Inconvenient PR Truth’s push against irrelevant press releases a few years ago? Go on, remind yourself.

An Inconvenient PR Truth from RealWire on Vimeo.

I’ve written about this topic a lot over the years, filed under the ‘Spam’ category.

So, to my near-rhetorical question: “Why should I respect embargoes?”

I do, actually, but in a passive sense – there’s no way I will write or say anything about a company or its product or service, embargo or no embargo, on information I get sent this way. Ever. I just delete the email and any attachments that come with it, and move on.

So musing on Twitter provoked some others to share their thoughts on the topic. Quite a few like minds, thank goodness, starting with Barbara Nixon and David Kamerer in the US:

And leading to a lengthy discussion involving Gabrielle Laine-Peters, Chris Owen and Paula Stei in the UK:

Gabrielle captured the scores of tweets into a Storify curation so please review that for the full conversation flow, or see the curation embedded at the end of this post.

There are three aspects from the conversation that have been rattling around my head since yesterday:

  1. The practice of sending out press releases under embargo as I’ve described here is anachronistic at best, unprofessional at worst, especially at a time when authenticity and relationships are two watchwords for creating the climate of trust that every PR professional surely ought to be striving to do (read the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014 to see why).
  2. That leads to focusing on the word ‘professional’ and how PRs clearly wish to be perceived as such by others, according to the latest ‘State of the Profession’ survey from the CIPR, published last week, saying, “Whilst nine out of ten respondents wish to be acknowledged as ‘professional’, results indicate a practice which seemingly struggles to embrace its desired professional ambitions.”
  3. To that end, CIPR President Stephen Waddington issued a challenge to CIPR members (one that every PR should pay heed to, CIPR member or otherwise): “How serious are you about putting this ambition [to be considered a professional] into practice?

It would be an easy matter to stay in exasperation mode and dismiss all of this as so much snow in Hell.

Even Stephen thinks it may take quite a while to see change.

Yet perhaps now, there’s a chance that some people in, or about to become part of, the public relations profession care enough that they themselves will be the architects of change.

Consider Paula Stei’s comments in the Twitter conversation yesterday. She’s a third-year PR student at university, who has a clear view on what feels right or not, and questions some behaviours. Maybe Paula and others in her generation can be the drivers of change. I’m certainly optimistic that I wouldn’t get an embargoed press release from Paula if we didn’t know each other.

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, as an old saying has it. The meaning is clear – great things may come from small beginnings. Behaviour change in how you do press releases is a good example of a small beginning that can lead to bigger things.

Maybe it’s changing a small thing such as this that can get you on the road to being perceived as a professional.

  • Related: In this week’s FIR podcast episode 744, my co-host Shel Holtz and I discuss the CIPR survey and Stephen Waddington’s challenge, looking at other options that professional associations may consider for the big-picture of professionalism, including attaining accreditation or passing an examination as a condition and requirement for a member to be able to practice public relations. That discussion starts about 16 minutes and 50 seconds into the show.

And for the Twitter conversation that prompted this post, here’s the Storify curation of tweets by Gabrielle Laine-Peters:

A new guide to help you verify digital content from any source

Giant beach ball on the loose...Verifying facts before publishing a news story is one of the cornerstones of trusted behaviour that we have traditionally expected from the mainstream media.

Even in the disruption of traditional sources of news over the past decade – with the rise of social media, of newer sources of news and information that compete with the traditional, of newer digital platforms from which to make news and information available, and in changing behaviours of people from purely consumers to creators (citizen journalists and the ugly-sounding ‘user-generated content‘) and questioners of the news story wherever and whenever it appears – we still largely hold the mainstream media to a higher standard with a continuing expectation that reporters and editors will get the facts right before they go to print or (more likely) publish online.

Nowhere is that more expected than in cases of disasters or tragedies. When there is so much happening so quickly, confusion and misinformation abound – mostly accidental but some deliberate – as a reporter tries to get the facts from many different places, increasingly including user-generated content in addition to traditional sources, eg, newswires and official spokespeople.

Especially at times like that, you want to be sure of what you intend to report with confidence, based on verifiable facts, that others will read, see and hear. And you need to do it very quickly.

Enter the Verification Handbook, a ground-breaking new resource for journalists and aid responders which provides step-by-step guidelines for using user-generated content during emergencies, and how to verify that content and the sources of it.

Verification Handbook

In a crisis situation, social networks are overloaded with situational updates, calls for relief, reports of new developments, and rescue information. Reporting the right information is often critical in shaping responses from the public and relief workers; it can literally be a matter of life or death.

The Handbook prescribes best practice advice on how to verify and use this information provided by the crowd, as well as actionable advice to facilitate disaster preparedness in newsrooms

The Handbook is divided into the following chapters:

  1. When Emergency News Breaks
  2. Verification Fundaments: Rules to Live By
  3. Verifying User-Generated Content
  4. Verifying Images
  5. Verifying Video
  6. Putting the Human Crowd to Work
  7. Adding the Computer Crowd to the Human Crowd
  8. Preparing for Disaster Coverage
  9. Creating a Verification Process and Checklist(s)
  10. Verification Tools

There are also a number of cases studies – including one that explains the giant beach ball on the loose photo at the top of this page – so the guide starts out with real credibility and not purely an academic-looking work.

Publisher The European Journalism Centre in Maastricht, The Netherlands, says it’s the first-ever guide for reporters and editors who use user-generated content during humanitarian emergencies. It is edited by Craig Silverman, author and founder of Regret The Error, now at The Poynter Institute in the US, and includes contributions by some credible and trusted names from across the world of journalism (scroll down from the website landing page to see who the authors are).

Significantly, the Verification Handbook is positioned as being a useful resource not only for reporters:

While it primarily targets journalists and aid providers, the Handbook can be used by anyone. Its advice and guidance are valuable whether you are a news journalist, citizen reporter, relief responder, volunteer, journalism school student, emergency communication specialist, or an academic researching social media.

If you publish anything online in a professional capacity, whatever your role, journalist or not, on which you have based your content on that of others, you will find the Verification Handbook worth bookmarking.

The guide is available as a website and, next month, as a downloadable PDF file, and in print, as well as a Kindle version for Amazon’s ebook reader.

What an excellent resource.

How to be smart about guest bloggers

Guest Bloggers Ahead!Every week, I receive two or three requests to publish guest posts on my blog.

The requests come by email from people I don’t know who almost always have a Gmail address, not a recognisable company domain. And there is usually nothing in the email about the person other than a name (which often doesn’t quite match the name in the email address), and no links to any presence on the social web.

They offer to be guest bloggers, writing posts for my blog on a wide variety of subjects, some of which match topics I am interested in and/or have written about myself in the blog. More recently, many of the emails that arrive offer to create or post infographics.

Are such requests worth considering, even accepting?

In a word, no. I’ll explain why in a minute.

The typical email I get is like this one I received this week:

Hello,

My name is Chris and I have been a pro guest blogger for a number of years. I currently have a couple high-quality original posts that I think would be a good fit for your site. One is called “Social Marketing Trends in 2014.” The other is called “Copywriting Tips and Tricks in a Digital World.” So if you’re interested in either one, I can send it right along.

Thanks for your time,

Chris

That was it. No links to anything, just the email text. Nothing to make me drop everything and get back to Chris.

And this one:

Hi,

As an energetic writer and keen web enthusiast, I have the habit of browsing through informative and well-written posts and articles. I have recently come across your website (nevillehobson.com) thought that the posts are quite interesting and informative.I was just wondering, if I could contribute something to your site or not. If yes, then as a guest blogger for your site,I promise that I will be producing articles that will be entirely unique, written just for your blog and will not be posted elsewhere.

I also promise that I will comply by your rules and regulations meant for guest posting and hope that I can produce work that is in conformity to the desired quality sought by you.

Will be eagerly awaiting your response. Looking forward to forge a meaningful collaboration.

Thanks & Regards,
Samantha Jones | Writer & Editor

Samantha Jones included her Twitter handle. But no profile information there, no photo, no link to anything anywhere… nothing there would prompt me to get in touch.

And this:

Hello,

My name is Angelina and I’m a writer and editor that has a real passion for Infographics. I am associated with many communities and sites and have been providing them infographic based content on finance since quite a long time now.

I came across your site http://www.nevillehobson.com/ and I really liked the way you have presented it. So I was wondering if I can contribute an infographic for your site too?

The infographic would be designed by me with a short description and a link to my site [redacted].

If you agree, please let me know and I can start working on it.

Awaiting your positive response.

Until about a year ago, I used to politely reply to such emails thanking the sender but declining the offer.

I soon realized that this was a waste of time. It became obvious to me that nearly all of the people sending me email about guest blogging weren’t really interested in my blog at all – this is purely an outlet for their content that would enable them to ride on the reputation this blog offers, its readership (and content syndication via RSS and other means), and potential traffic-driving to wherever any links would take a reader.

In short, I soon figured it was more about search engine optimisation and manipulating Google PageRank than supposedly creating great content for my blog.

Now I either ignore or delete such emails that make it through the email spam filters (and you’d be surprised at how many don’t make it through: more than 60 percent).

All of this comes to mind after I read “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO,” by Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, on January 20 in which he rings a loud alarm bell on the risks to bloggers of allowing guest blogging on their blogs, and engaging in guest blogging themselves.

[...] In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.

[...] I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there.

[...] I just want to highlight that a bunch of low-quality or spam sites have latched on to “guest blogging” as their link-building strategy, and we see a lot more spammy attempts to do guest blogging. Because of that, I’d recommend skepticism (or at least caution) when someone reaches out and offers you a guest blog article.

Cutts makes it clear where the risk is. It’s not guest blogging per se, it’s SEO and Google PageRank manipulation that’s the issue. And doing that can have serious consequences for the blogger on whose blog the ‘bad’ content is published.

I encourage you to read Cutts’ post in full, and watch the four videos he made that are embedded in the post. You will get a clearer idea on the full scope of guest blogging and the pros and cons.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t usually take guest posts on this blog. The few times I have, I either know the person who asks or they made a pretty good case for doing it.

I would consider one from a guest blogger I don’t personally know who has credentials and fits this 6-point profile:

  1. If the writer says he or she has written guest posts for other blogs, I want to see some of the posts on those other blogs – not just links to posts – that show that they are a good contextual ‘fit’ for those blogs and what they cover.
  2. Any links in guest posts to relevant content or specific sites elsewhere on the web do not include the ‘rel=dofollow’ attribute.
  3. A presence on the social web – the writer should have at least a Twitter handle complete with profile info, a photo and a link to another presence online, and with some longevity of being on Twitter, plus a good balance of followers and following.
  4. A presence on a social networking site (generally, I tend to pay more attention if someone is on Google+ rather than on Facebook).
  5. Their name shows up in Google search, with links and references to them and their work across the social web, suggesting a credible presence that I’d expect to see for someone whose says they’re a “long time guest blogger” or similar.
  6. Last but not least, something in their email that suggests they have at least read my blog and demonstrate that they have a pretty clear idea of the relevance of their proposed content to it.

I wonder what the next email that makes it through the spam filter will propose.