When I asked, "Why aren't IABC Richmond's chapter meetings any fun anymore?" (after Robert Holland asked the same question on his blog) the conversation lasted a week.
Nobody cares about IABC that much. They do care about their profession that much, and IABC is an important embodiment of the profession. So talks about IABC often become talks about the soul of the industry.
To wit: So when veteran communicator and industry observer Judy Gombita commented in the IABC Richmond discussion that she thinks "IABC is suffering from an identity problem, in terms of who are its target members and how, organizationally, IABC wants to be perceived," it wasn't surprising that another veteran, consultant Sean Williams, agreed that "IABC has been trying to rebrand the profession, away from the smarmy 'PR' stuff to defensible 'communication.' The only problem is that when most people here 'communication' they think of telephone systems and Internet connectivity."
Here are the considerations IABC is dealing with—and we're dealing with:
1. PRSA has always been the PR association and IABC has always been the employee communication association. It's like that, and that's the way it is. Except, neither association wants it to be like that, because they want to have members from the other group. And since there are more PR types in the world than employee communication specialists, IABC tries harder—always has, as has my former employer Ragan Communications, Gombita points out—to make forays out of employee communication geekdom and position itself as serving PR too.
But these forays aren't very successful. At Ragan, I once oversaw a launch of a newsletter called PR Intelligence Report that we called "The Public Relations Newsletter of Record," right out of the gate. The pub lasted only a few years. Ragan remains and probably always will remain a big deal in employee communication and small potatoes in PR.
Why? Because Larry Ragan founded Ragan (after becoming an important figure in IABC's predecessor organization, the musty-sounding International Council of Industrial Editors).
And Larry cut his teeth as an employee communication guy at Ford Motor Company and felt very deeply about the employee publication he put out, and much less deeply about the press releases he wrote later in his career. (A preference he passed on to his young protege, David Murray, chairman of the E2E Communication Awards, the only awards program solely devoted to employee communication.)
By the same token, Jack O'Dwyer loves PR, but employee communication bores him silly.
To each his own market niche.
2. A deeper consideration: PR people and employee communication people don't get along real well. Generally, PR people think of employee communication as a training ground for juniors or a ghetto for dew-eyed corporate do-gooders and pipsqueak moralists. And we employee communication nerds see PR people as publicists and campaign-oriented spinmeisters. Unfair in many cases, but not all.
It's the rare PR agency, for instance, that runs an effective employee communication practice; and employee communication outfits generally don't do PR.
And inside organizations, many employee communication people would much prefer to report to HR than PR, just because HR has a process orientation that fits better than the PR approach, which sometimes treats employees as just another constituency to be strategically messaged at. (Watch the lips of an employee communicator curl as a PR person says, "employee marketing.")
Again, you might call them prejudices but they're strongly enough held to make PR people and employee communication people want to choose an association where the other bastards aren't.
It's a battle for the soul of the profession!
Nah, it's just two different (and legitimate) intellectual and philosophical orientations contained in one rather loosely defined "profession" and served well enough by two associations with different cultures.
IABC and PRSA can pretend all they want that they each serve the same population. And each association will continue to troll for stray members or ex-members of the other.
But nobody who's been familiar with both organizations could ever imagine a merger between them. Nor never recommend such a merger, either.
So what's the "identity problem"? I don't think there is one.
Bill Sledzik says
Twenty years ago I would have said you were nuts, David.
In 1988, I was president of PRSA/Buffalo and host of the chapter’s 20th anniversary meeting. We decided to use that meeting to celebrate the impending merger of PRSA and IABC by inviting the national presidents: Dwayne Summar and Sharon Paul. It was to be their first “joint” appearance, and local members of both organizations were really pumped for it.
The merger fell apart just about a month before our birthday bash, but both association leaders came to speak and a good time was had by all. At the time I believed the PR profession missed a huge opportunity. Today, I agree with you: IABC and PRSA have distinct missions. That’s as it should be, and both would be well served by sharpening the distinctions — not trolling for the strays.
Last year, when I bemoaned the value of my PRSA membership in a blog post, your friends at IABC offered me a free, one-year membership. I accepted, but never did find value in the organization. IABC’s internal/corporate focus isn’t my thing. So I moved on. No big deal.
I agree that IABC does “try harder” and without the bravado I’ve seen from PRSA over the years. IABC’s online social network is useful, and its LinkedIn presence seems to bring value to members. And the fact that folks like you, Robert Holland and Les Potter are part of it — well, that speaks to IABC’s credibility — at least for me.
But at some point, ALL communicators must gather at the same table to assure integrated messages and strategies. And believe me, I sure don’t want some marketing person chairing that meeting!
We gotta have HR, PR, PA and Marcom on the same page. And I don’t see PRSA or IABC promoting that agenda. Just wonder where it will come from.
Ron Shewchuk says
I agree with you, Bill. And where it will come from is not a merger, but collaboration in some areas. Things like jointly sponsored events where IABC and PRSA/CPRS bring in a speaker who’s of interest to both. Annual mixers where members of local chapters can socialize and trade notes. This happens now, but not enough. Social media helps; I’ve signed up as a Facebook group member of my local CPRS chapter so I get invited to all its events. And a little leadership helps; one member of our Vancouver CPRS chapter has taken it upon herself to “build bridges” between the two associations by planning joint events, and it’s working.
As you say, David, this isn’t just about professional societies. We often live this “we’re important and you’re not” at work. But I can tell you I would much prefer to live with the tension in Public Affairs than turn over employee communications to HR.
Sean Williams says
David, several comments:
The PR agencies make their money in external relations, so it’s no surprise that they don’t invest much in employee communications. In fact, my own business model kind of counts on that — I can subcontract for employee communications and for measurement.
The external side of the business is seen by most organizations as vastly more important than internal. But if IABC were to focus more exclusively on internal communications, it would be a much smaller organization — number of people reporting to you and size of your budget are hallmarks of management success, so shrinking the organization is a non-starter.
We in IABC have seen ourselves as more holistic in practice, rather than single focus. We like to imagine a chief communication officer with all the various touchpoints reporting to him/her. I frequently say that we in Public Relations are better equipped to manage all communication functions than Marketing — all marketing IS communication, but NOT ALL communication IS marketing — and that’s how I perceive IABC’s mission.
That broader, strategic perspective is what (in my limited experience) differentiates IABC and PRSA. Of course, up until November of this year, I’ve not been a PRSA member, so I’m not speaking from experience.
I certainly have gotten significant value from my 20-so years with IABC, but most of that accrued from participation in leadership rather than programming. It’s a means of meeting people that happens to be surrounded by educational and interesting programming.
Some years ago, when I was looking at several opportunities, I asked Scott Chaikin of Dix and Eaton whether he’d recommend taking a senior internal communication position (building on current experience) or branching out into a public affairs/community relations position. He pointed me to internal communications, saying that he believed that the internal job would be more interesting, more highly valued and more important, especially considering my weight of experience.
I applied for both jobs, but got the PA slot — and I wasn’t a happy camper for very long. When I had the chance, I took an internal position with another company, and really haven’t regretted doing so.
I do like the diversity of membership at IABC, its international ambitions, and the people I have met and worked with.
Sorry for the nosebleed comment, D…
David Murray says
Wow, a lot of good thinking already. Let me try to keep up:
@Bill: I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, how close these orgs came to merging. Thanks for the history lesson, and this key caveat to my sanguine attitude about the twain never needing to meet: “at some point, ALL communicators must gather at the same table to assure integrated messages and strategies.”
@Glynn: I agree that most employee communicators would prefer to report to PR; but I’ve known some who can’t stand it. It depends, of course, on who the PR person is. I ALSO have known many communicators, and I’d include you as one, who are the living integration of PR and internal communication cultures. I admire that whenever I see it.
@Sean You’re allowed to bleed when the blood is all true. Like you, I’ve always been much more attracted to IABC than PRSA–for the focus, for the ambition and really just for the warm culture (even if it gets a little too fuzzy for its own good every once in awhile!)
Sean Williams says
Thanks Murr — one last thought about “what we call ourselves.” Back in the 90’s, a big regional bank was getting away from the use of the word, “bank” in its name. A massively expensive ($150 mill?) branding campaign ensued, trying to get people to use the company’s new bank-less name in place of the word, Bank. “I need to stop at the NAME” — well, that happened pretty well in most markets; when people saw the logo they thought BANK. However, the strategy was to become a FINANCIAL SERVICES COMPANY. What’s the problem? NAME became equal to BANK in the customer’s mind. The more we talked about Financial Services, the more confused the customer became — unaided awareness sagged.
We need to use terms that people understand about our profession. Strategic Communication sounds great, but what exactly is it? Public Relations may be a little tarnished (deliberate understatement), but at least people have some idea of what it is.
David Murray says
Point taken, Sean, but we don’t want them to have the WRONG idea. At the risk of stereotyping:
When you say “classic PR pro,” I think Fraser Seitel or Ginger Hardage. When you say, “classic employee communicator,” I think Ron Shewchuk or Angela Sinickas.
All people I admire, all interesting and effective people–but coming from very different points of view and offering very different skills.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
See, this is the kind of navel gazing and soul searching that too often saps IABC’s energy. Meanwhile, many chapters are just trying to figure out how to stay alive.
I get that the philosophical discussion is important and relevant to keeping chapters alive, but if you don’t mind, I’m going to stay on my original message: IABC needs to take a more active role in helping chapters figure out how to solve their problems, especially around volunteer leadership, member participation and programs/services.
David Murray says
Fair enough, Robert. But to be honest, I don’t see much of this communication-industry soul searching going on either. Perhaps I don’t hang around the right bars?
Yossi Mandel says
There’s room for a niche organization (okay, even-further-niche organization) that services people interested and skilled in both PR and Internal Communications. That’s a much smaller group of people. It takes a lot of skill to be able to both spin/craft a true message to the outside world and then turn around and speak bald-faced with employees internally. It’s possible the majority of communicators are adept at either PR or Internal Communications, but not both, and an organization that caters to both will not suit them.
There’s another mindset split to bridge when practicing both disciplines: PR can afford to not gain every single potential customer. Markets can be segmented, demographics targeted, and 5 billion people do not have to be reached to show success. Employee communicators can’t afford to lose even one employee. Realistically we will, but the mindset has to be “to each according to their [communication] needs.”
Sean Williams says
Robert, the chapters that uncover how best to serve their members will thrive. Those that do not will wither and die. IABC HQ could help by making resources available to chapters to help them discover member needs and desires (research tools), and do a good job helping chapter leadership excel. But leadership is volunteer and has day jobs, so they’re going to struggle devoting sufficient time and energy to the task. That’s why some chapters struggle to even fill leadership positions.
That discussion should not be mutually exclusive to the discussion of the mission and purpose of the organization, navel-gazing though it might appear. All professional associations need a periodic infusion of fresh ideas and perspectives, lest we ossify. But action with no strategy is a recipe for failure, no?
Mark Ragan says
You may be the only corporate communications blogger willing to spend time analyzing these important issues. Thanks.
Here are three of my own observations:
First, IABC is bursting with life here in Chicago. I read your post after returning from the group’s regular monthly luncheon. The room was packed to the rafters with eager communicators. They struck me as being more passionate about their association than ever. It may be that the Richmond chapter is in the minority.
Second, do you really think PRSA and IABC try to poach each other’s members? I have never seen it, and I work very closely with PRSA.
Third, I have seen a profound shift in this industry since the start of The Great Recession. More and more internal communicators are reporting to HR as companies consolidate and restructure after layoffs. Will this continue? And I wonder what your readers think about the trend?
Thanks again for devoting your blog to this issue.
P.S. A few points about Ragan:
While it’s true that we struggled for years attempting to break into the PR business, we are now firmly established there with close to 40,000 PR people reading PR Daily every morning. In fact, it is the single biggest growth factor in our business, easily dwarfing our internal communications product line. And we now host with PRSA the biggest PR conference of the year in social media (this year at Coca-Cola in Atlanta).
I just wanted to catch you up on this.
David Murray says
Mark, thanks for commenting; I was hoping you’d weigh in.
1. I don’t think IABC and PRSA try to “poach” each other’s members, just that they describe themselves in ways that won’t discourage would-be members of the other organization from joining them, instead.
2. When you say “biggest PR conference of the year in social media,” what does that mean exactly? And: PR Daily is free. And you say the growth of the PR business “dwarfs” your internal communication products line; but that’s because your internal communication products line is already at max market share.
I’m not trying to say you guys aren’t working your way into the PR market or that you can’t, just sticking with my original opinion that, for a traditionally internal communications outfit like Ragan, PR is a what we call a “stretch goal.” (At least it sounds like you’re stretching a bit when you talk about it.)
Why? Because employee comms and PR are different cultures served and styles and discussed from different perspectives.
Judy Gombita says
First off, thank you David, for paying attention to my two comments to your earlier blog (as well as some tweets) and developing them into a line of reasoning and subsequent post that forwards your own views on the issue, some of which converge with mine. (I’ve benefited from your generosity in the past, in terms of profile and credibility, for which I remain appreciative. Note, however, that I’ve had to put up with some ribbing from colleagues about your “veteran” moniker; I’ve responded that “salutes” remain optional.)
Where to begin and how detailed to make my response?
I want to ground my comment back to the original premise that IABC/Richmond is hurting, and how to help. I continue to believe that the chapter must differentiate itself from the competition at the local level, in order to make it relevant and cost effective as the “communication association of choice.” And those differentiations may not always align with the international headquarters’ aspirations and mandate, which include being international and (theoretically) multi-disciplinary. If the existing, lapsed and potential members of IABC/Richmond have other options for industry association membership (whether that be PRSA, HR, CMC, AMA, Women in Communications, etc.) or for-profit companies and/or free social networks, looking to staff or the board of IABC isn’t going to be much help, Robert Holland. They don’t live and work amongst you. They have other priorities. And, realistically, why should IABC/Richmond get special attention in terms of organizational resources?
Direct help is no guarantee for sustained success. (One of my ongoing complaints as an IABC volunteer was how little attention IABC’s staff and board paid to “the largest IABC chapter in the world,” in terms of recognition and profile. IABC/Toronto’s success had very little to do with handholding from the San Francisco-based office.)
I don’t see that as “navel gazing” although I would agree that it’s “soul searching.” And what’s wrong with that? I don’t know how to frame this in a totally polite way, but I am perplexed by the way you dismiss alternative suggestions and potential solutions that don’t align with your own prescription for reinvigorating the chapter.
Make no mistake: industry associations (which are private organizations) and for-profit companies are competitors. There might be some Kumbaya instances at the local level (as per Ron Shewchuk’s Vancouver experience), but at the (inter)national governing and administrative levels you aren’t going to see many altruistic moves to share resources and competitive intelligence, except when it comes to getting more bums in seats at event and conferences and/or providing the impression that members are getting more value for their dues, with discounted attendance rates (for example, the upcoming PRSA-Ragan social media conference).
When it comes to defining the “public relations and communication management ‘profession’,” a legitimate umbrella organization does exist: the Global Alliance (GA), which is the international association of national PR associations. (It was confirmed to me the other day that IABC was recently granted “non-national”/full membership status in the GA for the first time. I’m hoping IABC transitions to being an international “team player” in this enhanced role.)
* * *
Some odds and ends, comments and questions:
David, you write, “IABC and PRSA can pretend all they want that they each serve the same population. And each association will continue to troll for stray members or ex-members of the other.”
I’m curious to hear examples of how you see PRSA trying to troll for IABC members, specifically in the employee communicator vein, in terms of mandate, member benefits and program offerings. (Plus, of course, as a Canadian I’ve already noted that you’ve only focused on one national PR association as an IABC competitor…..)
Additionally, do you (or Sean Williams) have any statistics to back up the premise that there are more people working in public relations/public affairs than employee communications (and, perhaps, internal marketing communications)? I find it plausible that the budgets are probably bigger for public relations (although almost always less than that of advertising and marketing), but in terms of actual staff numbers, I’m less convinced. Particularly as many corporations and other organizations continue to contract agencies to do much of the work, instead of increasing in-house PR staff. (Note that individuals employed by agencies comprise an extremely small percentage of the CPRS membership. And I’m guessing IABC Canadian chapter members, too.)
On a general note, whether it be membership in a national PR association or IABC, my PR Conversations co-blogger, Toni Muzi Falconi (inaugural chair of the Global Alliance) claims that 10 per cent or fewer of individuals employed in the public relations and communication management function opt to belong to an industry association(s). Ergo, there is an enormous potential pool of members to draw upon. That is, if you make membership viable and relevant, professionally and personally, (inter)nationally and locally.
Regarding Sean Williams’ comment, “We in IABC have seen ourselves as more holistic in practice, rather than single focus,” I’ve already been grilling him (offline) why—if this “holistic” approach and “strategic communication” definition of public relations is so superior—he has felt the need to be involved with the Institute for Public Relations and, now, has joined PRSA. I know the answer: in truth, “holistic” translates to generalist or multi-disciplinary, and Sean is looking for specialization in public relations, which the two other organizations offer. Kudos to Sean for allocating resources to benefit from membership in two industry associations, as it appears he is deriving benefits from both.
I’m wondering whether other people noticed Bill Sledzik’s comment, “But at some point, ALL communicators must gather at the same table to assure integrated messages and strategies. And believe me, I sure don’t want some marketing person chairing that meeting!” Because there is another differentiator between public relations and employee communications: our threat for influence and management comes from marketing; employee communicators have the love-hate relationship with HR. (Even Glynn thinks public affairs is the lesser of two evils.)
Yossi Mandel, I like the way you think. Well, except for your line, “There’s another mindset split to bridge when practicing both disciplines: PR can afford to not gain every single potential customer. Markets can be segmented, demographics targeted, and 5 billion people do not have to be reached to show success.”
Marketers have markets. Public relations practitioners have stakeholders or “publics” (employees and customers being two of them). Big difference.
* * *
Finally (for this comment), I’d caution IABC members not to celebrate too much that one of your differentiators is “the focus, the ambition and the warm culture” of IABC.” Not because I don’t believe these things are components of IABC, but rather because I think you’d find members of other industry associations claiming the same things. It’s all a matter of championing and perspective, eh?
Some related links:
– Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management: http://www.globalalliancepr.org/content/1/1/homepage
– Industry, trade or profession? Some observations on PR associations, present and future (my December 2007 PR Conversations blog post): http://www.prconversations.com/?p=373
– Introducing a new, maple-infused definition of public relations, in both official languages (my June 2007 PR Conversations blog post): http://www.prconversations.com/?p=561
David Murray says
Gombita, you don’t fool around. And of course I’m running ragged on several other projects …..
However, I’ll address two points you brought to me directly:
1. You ask for example of PRSA trolling for people who might otherwise join IABC …. I haven’t covered PRSA closely in awhile, so and the only example I can give you is admittedly dog-eared one from like 10 years ago. Back then, PRSA made a big thing out of creating an “employee communication practice section,” or some such. The notion was you could join PRSA and live in comfy silo for employee communication people. Not sure if PRSA does that–and I’m not against them doing it–but maybe someone will update us.
2. As far as statistics of #s of PR pros vs. employee communication pros, I don’t have ’em. IABC has 14,000-ish members and PRSA has more than 20,000. Employee communication is but one specialty in a corp comms department that might have PR, media relations, executive communications, etc. I think it stands to reason that the lion’s share of all communications work is external (though less so during hard times like these, when companies put away the trumpets focus on internal).
It must also be said that such statistics could never exist, because many if not most internal communicators do external communication and most PR pros do some internal stuff.
Anyway, thanks as always for your sincerity and careful attention to this stuff, Judy.
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