Relevance is the key to IABC’s future2014-06-19
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.
Carlos 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 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.