Relevance is the key to IABC’s future

Posted on June 19, 2014 8:46 am by | IABC

IABC is on the right path

The last few years have been a struggle for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Poor communication with members has led to dissent from within, particularly over the fate of the Accreditation program. Membership numbers have dwindled and longtime stalwarts are among those letting their memberships lapse. An ill-advised purge of the San Francisco-based staff left IABC with little institutional memory. At times, the volunteer board seemed rudderless and confused.

Combine this with external threats—notably the perception that associations have outlived their usefulness in the connected, collaborative, resource-rich world of digital and social media—and things were looking pretty dire.

After attending the 2014 World Conference in Toronto last week, I’m convinced IABC has turned the corner. If you’re a member considering moving on, you should stick around a while longer. If you have been considering membership, now is a good time to pull the trigger. If you are one of those who bid a sad farewell to IABC, you may want to revisit the association. Here’s why.

The right leader

At the World Conference, IABC announced that Carlos Fulcher, MBA, CAE, will begin next month as IABC’s executive director, the full-time head of the association’s staff.

For more than a decade, I have been advocating for an executive director whose experience and skills align with managing an association. The selection committees have, over the years, had shown an unfortunate preference for hiring communicators to lead IABC. IABC, however, is not a communications department or a PR agency. It’s an association. The executive director needs to know how to manage an association staff, develop membership, support and serve members, manage the association’s finances, and so on.

With new Executive Director Carlos FulcherCarlos Fulcher satisfies these criteria better than if I had created him in a laboratory. He has spend the last four years as Chief Operating Officer and Worldwide Deputy Executive Director for the 18,000 member Drug Information Association; before that, he was CIO and vice president of IT for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, a position he advanced to from his earlier role as chief information and knowledge officer. His background is in IT, an area of expertise IABC sorely needs (more on this in a bit). He has an MBA and is a certified association executive. That CAE is important not only because it carries the weight of certification standards, but because IABC is getting ready to introduce its own ISO-compliant certification process.

One more point: Fulcher is a native of Brazil who has lived in the US since the 1980s. That brings a genuine international perspective to the staff leader of an international association…not to mention that the current chair is British and the vice-chair—with automatic succession to chair—is Danish!

For more on Fulcher’s background, take a look at his LinkedIn profile.

IABC is revisiting its core models

The first time I told an IABC executive director that digital media posed a threat to the association model, David Paulus held the position. That was in 1995. The 2013-14 and the 2014-15 boards are looking seriously at how IABC can deliver value to members who, through the Web, have access to networks of communicators, volumes of content, webinars, tweet-ups, tweet chats, SlideShare presentations, MOOCs, training videos and a host of other resources, all without paying dues.

Key among these is the IABC Academy. An umbrella structure for a broad range of professional development tools, the Academy will peg its resources to both the type of communication work you do and the current stage of your career. Even better, Past Chair Robin McCasland told me that IABC has reconciled that communication strategy is its wheelhouse and that partnerships will be struck in order to provide professional development in areas outside that wheelhouse.

Ensuring those are the right partners will be staff’s job. Prospects include universities, agencies, and organizations like Ragan Communications traditionally seen as competitors.

The Academy is tied closely to the new certification program. (Because certification is linked to globally-recognized ISO standards, employers will know exactly what they’re getting with a certified communicator who can be held accountable for violations of the standards.) Certification also focuses on different branches of communications. You can specialize, for example, in media relations or employee communications, among other specialties. Training from the Academy will earn credit toward that certification.

From a revenue standpoint, all this matters because you won’t have to be a member to use the Academy or to become certified, but you will have to pay. One important idea here is that today’s business person may have essential communication roles to fulfill in his or her job, even if it’s not a communications job. They may need what IABC can deliver through training and certification without needing to invest in membership. Tiers of participation was an idea originally floated about 11 or 12 years ago but abandoned when IABC found itself in sudden financial chaos.

That doesn’t mean IABC’s commitment to members will suffer. “Our members at large and those in chapters, our regions and our Fellows, will always be the heart and soul of our Association,” incoming chair Russell Grossman told those attending the Annual General Meeting.  “We must never lose that heart and soul and the sense of camaraderie and belongingness which IABC represents so often to its members. it will always be primary to who we are.”

Nevertheless, he said, “People entering the profession today at twenty-something may experience work and life in a vastly different way.” IABC must focus on segmentation, he said, “And having the courage and the confidence to regularly try new things” will be a guiding philosophy.

The annual conference is another legacy activity that’s undergoing review. Once, conference was one of IABC’s two most important revenue sources (along with membership dues). Today, IABC is lucky if conference breaks even. “We don’t plan to do away with conference,” McCasland told me. “But we have to figure out how to sustain it.” that could mean multiple conferences throughout the year to deliver more effectively at regional levels, or some other reconfiguration. “We need to revise the model. Carlos will be looking at it on staff.”

There’s also the issue of the conference site, traditionally in a pricey hotel with a commitment to a large block of rooms. One alternative might be holding the conference in a conference center and providing access to a range of nearby hotels for members with varying budgets.

Chapters are another sacred cow under the microscope. Most members engage with IABC at the chapter level, but a number of factors are altering the nature of chapters and the way they interact with the international organization. IABC’s chapter focus—under scrutiny from a task force—will be to better support chapters while simultaneously preparing to support communications professionals through models that don’t involve chapters. “We have to be realistic,” McCasland said, pointing out that the changing nature of work will erode the chapter infrastructure and “IABC will need to be prepared to support you as a communications professional differently.”

Transparency and communication

IABC’s leaders are acutely aware that communication to members has not been optimal, an embarrassment for a communications association. One correction in the works is a regular update on financials and the status of various initiatives delivered by the board chair and the executive director, with feedback mechanisms built in. Moves are also afoot to have leaders at both the staff and board levels engage more in the various conversations taking place online—notably the very active and substantive conversations in LinkedIn groups.

Grossman himself plans to visit more chapters and be more visible during his tenure and is encouraging greater communication from his board. “I am determined,” he said, “that the international board should not be perceived as either aloof or clubby. I genuinely believe we are not, but more importantly we should not be perceived as such.”

Advocacy is another dimension of communication badly in need of improvement. When communication issues arise in the news, the media doesn’t seek comment from IABC. Yet if we represent the standard for excellence in communication, we should be the first resource the press seeks out.

Consensus has been the obstacle to advocacy in the past, but, McCasland says, “In the world we live in, members are more comfortable with the idea of dissenting opinions. We can acknowledge that certain people have valuable expertise, and we can let them speak in response to issues on behalf of IABC while still recognizing that there are other valid viewpoints.”

IABC’s “Be Heard” tagline is being retired because, Grossman said, IABC and its stakeholders need more than to be heard. We need “to represent the practice more and balance the degree to which we learn and increase our knowledge, with the amount we are prepared to speak on behalf of the profession.”

Grossman also seeks to crowdsource some advocacy from members. “We all have a responsibility,” he said, invoking IABC, to speak up when there is something to be said; to share comment when there is a valid opinion to be put, as well as to listen and to learn when others have valid points.”

Part of the advocacy effort will include expanding the number of media outlets that cover IABC, which currently is severely limited.


IABC’s finances have been front-and-center ever since former executive director Julie Freeman’s list of questions appeared on David Murray’s Writing Boots blog. In her opening remarks at IABC"s Annual general Meeting last Tuesday, McCasland wisely began by addressing finances.

First, IABC is locked into a lease for luxurious office space across the street from San Francisco’s Transamerica Tower. The long-term lease was set up to balloon in its later years; the current nut is $430,000 annually. Making matters worse, much of that space is not being used. (IABC is exploring the possibility of listing that space on one of the sites that makes unused space available so that some revenue might be derived from the vacant offices and cubes.) Interim Director Ann Lazarus has consulted with real estate and legal counsel, but there is no way to get out of the lease. When it expires in 2016, headquarters will move to more reasonable space, very possibly out of San Francisco to a city with lower real estate prices.

There were other one-time hits to IABC’s wallet. The association’s servers were so old at least one was beginning to spew smoke, prompting a call from the building’s management. One former IT staffer brought in his own server as a stopgap measure to keeping the system up and running. McCasland said considerable money had to be invested in new servers that would be up to the task of running a modern, sophisticated membership management system.

That software represents another significant investment. The old software failed to address lapsed members, among other things, a factor in IABC’s falling membership numbers. Making matters worse, much of the old system was hand-crafted by IABC staffers no longer with the association. The new system will be a supported product that will scale to meet IABC’s needs.

One more hit was the result of the 2013 purge of staff undertaken by the last executive director. The cost of those terminations—including severance packages—put an additional strain on IABC’s finances.

In her financial report, IABC Treasurer Terry Cerisoles acknowledged a year-ending $529,000 deficit but also reported IABC had $1.5 million in savings and investments after money was drawn to cover the deficit. (IABC has published a press release covering the financial report and other news from the Annual General Meeting. And outgoing IABC/Toronto president crafted a comprehensive summary of the Annual General Meeting on the IABC Toronto blog.)

Membership is growing again

Once a 14,000-member association, IABC’s numbers had dipped to around 12,000. Recent efforts to right the ship have reversed the trend, however, with membership hovering around 13,100 based on the April membership report. IABC’s current activities should keep those numbers rising, though it’s normal to expect ebb and flow based on whether headquarters or chapters are running membership specials.

Sustaining the current membership growth trend will be a stronger presentation of what IABC can mean to a communicator, both as a membership organization and as a resource for non-members. Grossman promised marketing and external communications that demonstrates pride and confidence “that we are the only international association representing communications practitioners.”

(IABC has published Grossman’s entire inaugural speech as a downloadable PDF.)

One source of new members will come from IABC’s growing corporate membership. Corporate members already represent nearly 30% of IABC’s membership, and growth of that segment is another area of focus. “The potential is significant,” McCasland told me. “We have some big corporate memberships from outside North America,” and many companies are looking to IABC to provide training and resources to their entire communications staff.  “We can go to their place of business and do training, and we can provide our members as trainers,” she said, returning some paying business to members whose expertise can serve the needs of corporate members. (I have already done one paid webinar for a corporate member of IABC, so I can attest that the model is a compelling one.)

Smart short-term focus

IABC is positioning itself for the long term with much of its planning. None of that will matter if it doesn’t survive in the short term. The board and staff are returning from conference, and Fulcher is joining the organization, with an intense focus on the short term. That includes…

  • Revenue generation through a revised conference model, along with a review of where revenue can be produced through the remainder of the 2013-14 fiscal year.
  • Improved IT that will enhance the member experience, including the launch (finally) of a new website with additional functionality to add even more value to the member’s experience.
  • One of Fulcher’s first jobs will be to align staff resources to ensure the right people are where they’re needed to deliver the most critical services to members.

Areas of concern

My enthusiasm for IABC’s current direction, and my confidence that the moves are right for the association and its members, are tempered by a few remaining areas of concern. Chief among these is the need to embrace a modern media relations mentality that recognizes who constitutes the media these days and includes critics among those we engage with.

I also remain concerned about the future of the accreditation program. While no more members will be accredited as IABC shifts to certification (the right move, in my view), there are still more than 1,000 accredited members—a huge number of whom are in Canada—who still feel disenfranchised. More engagement with these members about how to handle the transition without leaving them in the cold is needed.

I would also like to see greater financial transparency. Booking the new website as an intangible asset may be clever accounting, but it’s not an asset that can be sold and, if it had been booked as an expense, IABC would show $300,000 less equity. (To balance this concern, I’m optimistic that incoming executive director Fulcher’s financial background will play a significant role in taking a more professional and disciplined approach to managing and communicating IABC’s finances.)

I’m chuffed

I must confess, I have waited years for a legitimate excuse to use this word, a British bit of slang meaning “very pleased.” (The Brits have some great words we need to adopt; “chuffed” is one of them.)

While challenges certainly remain and obstacles will undoubtedly crop up, I’m chuffed about IABC’s future. For the first time in several years, I feel innovation. I sense a re-invigoration among members, at the board level, and at headquarters. People are excited and energized. IABC has recognized the impact changes in the world of work and the communications landscape have had—and will continue to have—on the role an association can play. And they’re taking the right steps to address those changes.

IABC is on the right path to meet the needs of communicators, whether communication is the focus of their jobs or just one part of it, whether they are members or just consumers of IABC resources. They have the right leader on staff and a board prepared to support him.

Now all IABC needs is you.

06/19/14 | 14 Comments | Relevance is the key to IABC’s future



  • 1.I'm chuffed, Shel, and despite the photo you posted, my eyes are wide open about our challenges ahead. I, too, am putting great faith in Carlos Fulcher. Thanks for this detailed, fair, & balanced report!

    Barbara Puffer | June 2014 | Connecticut for today

  • 2.Thanks, Shel, for very neatly summarizing the state of affairs at IABC. I, too, was present at the AGM and was greatly encouraged, not only by the leadership of outgoing president Robin McCaslund, but also by the enthusiasm with which incoming president Russell Grossman is continuing to move IABC in the right direction. The future looks bright.

    Sue Heuman, ABC | June 2014 | Edmonton

  • 3.A great, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing, Shel. After the AGM and Russell Grossman's speech, I felt a lot more hopeful about IABC's future.

    Donna | June 2014 | Toronto

  • 4.I hope you're right, Shel. Seems like better first steps than we've seen recently. I'd also like to see IABC: 1) remember that it's the International Association of Business Communicators, *not* the International Association of People Who Measure Business Communications (not that I'm against communication measurement AT ALL...just seems the story and creativity of communication have gotten years of short shrift at a time when we really, really need compelling content and approaches) and 2) make CW a more useful, meaningful publication.

    Amy Gooen | June 2014 | Washington DC

  • 5.Thank you, Shel. A helpful article.

    Shelley Den Haan | June 2014 | Calgary,

  • 6.Shel, thanks for this post (and to Judy Gombita for pointing me to it.)

    Whilst I wouldn't go as far as "chuffed," I will say that Robin talked me off the ledge at Heritage Region in Indy last year with her determination, probity and wisdom. Great Scott, what a volunteer job to have over the last year!

    My concerns are some of those you articulate, and these:

    If too many benefits are available at reasonable price to nonmembers, they won't join.

    Increasingly, people are questioning the value of memberships where there are several levels of experience -- chapters get more less-experienced attendees at luncheons and happy hours, and struggle to program for the more senior among us. IABC is a generalist association in an increasingly specialized world.

    Certification in the States needs PRSA, and they're pushing the APR in the coming year -- I've talked with many people who've encouraged me to get it once my master's is done next year.

    IABC is highly international, but lacks connection to academia (at least here in the US), and thus the body of research it could influence is limited. To Amy G's point, it's not ALL about measurement, but you'd get an argument from many in the C-suite. How about a scholarly study on the impact of storytelling on belief, attitude and tenure?

    As the most international of the practitioner organizations, country-based associations are competitors. This speaks to the need to articulate a specific set of value propositions for IABC that differentiate it from PRSA, CPRS, CIPR and others. IPRA and AMEC certainly have it, and the Global Alliance demonstrates the need for a holistic view in this respect, but IABC needs a stronger differentiator. If it doesn't have one from a business strategy standpoint, it needs one.

    I've been in IABC for a long time now, more than 20 years. I have enjoyed it, especially in recent years with my involvement at Heritage Region. I want it to succeed, and want to do my part to help make it so. (After my master's next year!)

    Thanks again Shel - always nice to see you. I took :Writing for the Wired World: in about 1995 ish...or so...

    Sean D Williams | June 2014 | United States

  • 7.Thanks for that clear summary and thoughtful perspective.

    A lot of fresh thinking has taken place since last year's depressing AGM. I was encouraged by the tone of this year's AGM and by discussions I had with assorted IABC leaders during the conference in Toronto.

    Until then, I had been thinking my work and interests had evolved in a different direction than IABC's. Now I see IABC offering multiple routes and destinations for our members.

    And I notice I am using "we" again, when I think of IABC.

    Sue Johnston | June 2014 | Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

  • 8.Excellent observations, Shel, and Ithink a great deal of what you said is also ap to our other communications trade groups, particularly PRSA,, which has analogous challenges -- including expensive offfice space in an expensive city.

    I recently reengaged with the Philadelphia chapter of IABC after being away from IABC most of my corporate career. I took over responsibility for the chapter website just as the headquarters servers were failing, so we were able to stay up on the web while others were down.We're facing all the challenges of declining membership, poor attendance at programs, and so on. THere have to be some ways we can engage the next generation of communicators and make IABC professional development relevant to them.

    Steve Lubetkin | June 2014 | Cherry Hill, NJ

  • 9.An excellent review of the situation. We have reason for optimism. Crest and Trough are normal in evolution. As the old gives way to the new constantly, let us be steadfast in our will and belief.

    Dr. Rajeev Kumar, ABC | June 2014 | India

  • 10.Very well done, Shel. Should any IABC member or non-member wish to learn the current state of our association, your post is a must-read - accurate, comprehensive and informative. I wish Carlos Fulcher and the HQ staff nothing but the very best as they move forward.

    John Clemons, ABC, APR | June 2014 | Arkansas

  • 11.Shel - this is rock star commentary. I'm not chuffed ... yet, but hopeful. Let's hope that Carlos also has internal leadership skills so that he can correct some of the shenanigans that have occurred in the past couple of years.

    Kellie Garrett, ABC, MC, ACC, ICD.D

    Kellie Garrett | June 2014 | Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

  • 12.I echo what's been expressed in the comments above. Thanks for putting words to the situation. The post will serve as a good discussion starting point for an upcoming chapter board meeting.

    Tami W | June 2014 | Minnesota

  • 13.Thank you for this, Shel. You're a credit to the profession.

    Ron Shewchuk | June 2014 | Canada

  • 14.Hey, Shel,

    Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me. Very much appreciated. Two more things for our members to ponder:

    1) Our ABCs have tremendous professional experience, and some of them have the skills to teach effectively, too. They may be some of the folks tapped to present IABC Academy courses in the future. This would be another great opportunity to ensure our accredited members remain active and in key leadership roles within the association for years to come.

    2) You touched on the challenge of differentiating IABC. It's a tough one. When I became chair last year I asked the board members to participate in a brand exercise to boil down IABC's differentiator(s)...and to consider our value proposition. It was an eye-opening experience.

    I did it to illustrate the need for the brand task force I was organizing -- which is now led by Priya Bates, ABC. That task force has done a tremendous job thus far and their work is continuing into the new board term. I know you participated in the task force "brand camp" in Toronto. Great results from that session.

    It felt strange to launch a brand task force while we were restaffing, repairing IT issues and getting new programs launched. However, I knew we couldn't wait. We needed to be ready to roll with the right messages to the market...and the right value proposition for IABC.

    I'm curious to know how more of our members define that "it" factor that keeps them involved in IABC. There's always the warm and fuzzy feedback following world conference. Beyond world conference, we receive much positive feedback (even during difficult times) about the amazing global community IABC has grown over time. We have significant global reach, and the potential for much more, yet our relationships are such that many of us feel like close neighbors.

    How do we maintain that terrific quality and incorporate it into IABC's new value proposition? How can we do that effectively, while also making room for the other key messages that will differentiate IABC clearly and ensure our association is attractive to the communication profession and other business professionals who may benefit from what we offer?

    It's a tall order, but I think the effort is well worth it.

    Robin McCasland | June 2014 | Dallas, Texas United States

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