Last week communication blogger, Boots regular, new McMurry colleague and IABC watcher Robert Holland sounded an alarm that his Richmond, Va. chapter and others like it "need help—now!" from the mother organization, IABC International.
He said it's killing him to watch his beloved local chapter struggle to retain members and fail to cajole people to attend monthly meetings.
"As we recalled last night, coming to an IABC/Richmond meeting was [once] an
energizing experience. Now the chapter is struggling, but it is not
because of mismanagement or lack of effort by local volunteers.
Understanding the problem—and, more important, what to do about it—requires more resources and experience than IABC/Richmond leaders can
muster. And the Richmond chapter is not alone. This scenario is playing
out in many other chapters, especially in North America."
I have a couple of reactions to Robert's post:
First, I question Robert's contention that it takes an international organization based in San Francisco to understand why the bounce has gone out of a local club's bungee. Isn't that a little like demanding help from the Miller Brewing Company to explain why the Thursday night crowd has tailed off at the J&M Tap?
Not that I don't think the mother organization should be motivated to understand why some chapters' membership is down while other chapters (like Chicago and Toronto) are thriving.
Overall, IABC is down a thousand members thanks to the economy (membership stands at about 15,500), and the association brass is launching a study to assess members' needs. Here's what I expect the study will find:
Where once IABC was the lock, stock, whole nine yards, kaboodle and barrel of all communicator networking—luncheon meetings for local chumming up, the big fat directory and the International Conference for national and international networking—LinkedIn and other social networking platforms have handled the basic national networking, leaving IABC's core value on the outer margins: global, and hyper local.
I'm an IABC member, but I consider LinkedIn my go-to network. Why? Because even though my LinkedIn connections are only a modest 184, these are communicators I know all over the country (and a few more far-flung). So if I need to talk to a communicator in San Francisco or at in the auto industry, I'll probably turn to my personal network long before figuratively thumbing through a virtual IABC phone book.
But if I need a communication contact in Shanghai or New Delhi, I go to IABC, which not only offers me contacts there, but a useful introduction, too: "Greetings from Chicago! I'm a fellow IABC member …."
The rest of the value IABC offers is local. Without IABC, each city would need its own communication Grand Poobah to start a club and host meetings that appeal to locals and make a group culture all their own … wait a minute, each city does need all these things, even with IABC. IABC's central office only provides a framework. (And if it were too heavy-handed, those Richmond meetings would never have been any fun in the first place.)
If Richmond's IABC meetings are dead these days—especially in an economy where people are networking with one another other like beetles in the spring—I suspect one of two things is true:
Either Richmond's communication community is shrinking, longer having enough generous veterans to speak at meetings and accept résumés, enough up-and-coming pros to run the meetings, or enough eager beavers to populate them.
Or, the community is lacking a Grand Poobah with sufficient charisma and talent and energy to pull together good meetings.
Can IABC International do a better job of supporting IABC Richmond? Might San Francisco be a better clearinghouse for chapter-to-chapter survival tips? Might it be argued that IABC should divert some of the resources it puts toward national programs toward chapter support? Yes, yes, yes.
But the first chore, it seems to me, is introspection, at the chapter level. If we find out What's the Matter with Richmond we'll know what's the matter with IABC.
And I trust IABC Richmond veteran Robert Holland to answer that question in far more revealing and useful detail than some survey issued from California.
Rick Spratley says
Maybe they’re attending IABC Washington DC meetings? I’ve recently relocated to DC and I will have to say Shonali Burke, Angelo Ioffreda and others have been tremendously welcoming and helpful.
The meetings continue to be energizing.
Where else can you go to meet others in the profession? Despite Social Media, nothing beats face to face networking.
Robert Holland should volunteer to help transform his IABC local meetings into a more valuable experience.
David Murray says
Hey, Rick—yep, Washington has been a consistent star chapter for IABC (many of these thriving chapters—Toronto, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, seem to come from big cities).
I want to make it clear that it’s not for me or anyone else to tell Robert Holland (or anybody else) it’s their duty to transform their chapter. Robert has served two years as chapter prez and three years on the International board and he could easily argue he’s done his bit.
Besides, for any responsible person, IABC volunteerism has to come after a professional and family obligations, and nobody can tell anybody what else to do.
All I’m saying is that Robert and the gang in Richmond know the solution better than the San Franciscans. And you’re right in that someone LIKE Robert will no doubt have to step up and lead the comeback.
Sue Horner says
David, I agree with you that Robert and the gang in Richmond would be better able to come up with an appropriate solution than IABC HQ. Maybe San Francisco can do more to support efforts to reach out to volunteers, encourage them and reward them, but it’s the local volunteers who make the face-to-face chapter events inviting, or not.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
David, thank you for a thoughtful post and for continuing this important conversation here.
I wrote my post partly out of a years-long frustration with the direction of IABC. Some would argue that its strategy in the last few years has been successful and will point to statistics and numbers on membership and chapter growth and new products/services to make their case. And they would not be wrong.
However, I am concerned that the well-being of chapters often gets lost in the shuffle as IABC has focused its attention on other things. I made my case on my blog, so I won’t repeat it here.
I am not asking IABC to come in and do the work for chapter leaders or to impose programs and processes on chapters, which would only serve to further cripple them. I am asking IABC to recognize that chapters are the lifeblood of the association and to ensure that its products and services reflect that fact.
I agree with you that, ultimately, it is up to local volunteers to make the local chapters successful. Nobody knows this better than I do. As you point out, I’ve served two years as president of IABC/Richmond, many more in other board and committee positions, and I served three years on the IABC Executive Board, including two as director of the former District III. I’ve volunteered and remain involved because I believe in this association and because I feel compelled to give back a portion of what it has given me.
And the Richmond chapter is led by smart, creative professionals who know our market and are doing their best to serve its needs.
However, my chapter — and many others — struggle with persistent problems that threaten their vitality and, in some cases, their existence. I know there are solutions out there, as evidenced by the many chapters that thrive. At the very least, it seems IABC should 1) be keenly aware of the chapters that are struggling, 2) provide hands-on support and resources — not just passive offerings of information — to help those chapters turn around, and 3) take an active role in connecting struggling chapters (and their leaders) with healthy chapters (and their leaders) that could mentor them back to health.
If nothing else, my blog post brought this issue to the attention of IABC staff and volunteer leaders and elicited offers of aid from some wonderful, generous volunteer leaders from around the world. But this is about more than just IABC/Richmond. It’s an issue that affects many chapters around the world. I hope IABC’s leadership will put chapter support back on the front-burner because as go the chapters, so goes IABC.
Sean Williams says
David, despite a legendarily bad economy here in Cleveland, are chapter has held its own, doubling-plus in size over 10 years despite the loss of several Fortune 500 companies.
Leadership has been excellent during this time, sure, but it’s strategy (imho) that has made the difference for us (I’m in another go-round on the chapter’s board after a 90’s sojurn).
We constantly ask ourselves (as a board) how to add more value for members. We do the post-luncheon smile sheets and take the data seriously. We endeavor to expend resources in service to members, including low-cost and no-cost programs (just did two a.m. professional development meetings at very low cost). On the programs side, our co-chair Kelly South and I, together with assistance from Connie Lechleitner, work with the board to uncover interesting speakers from around the country, as well as from our local organizations, to do programming that we haven’t done in a while.
Last spring, we hosted a discussion on sustainability. We did an innovation workshop in September, and in February, we’ll host a panel on healthcare communication during a time of reform. Plus, half day seminars on non-profit communications and social media measurement.
We’re launching a site redesign and using a member committee to shepherd it. We never let our focus flag.
Do we have all the attendees we’d like to have? No! Are our evaluations good? Yes. We’re content to make these programs as fulfilling as possible.
We also realize that much networking occurs outside our realm, and so we are present on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, though our participation isn’t as robust in those networks needs to increase.
All chapters need to dedicate themselves to serving the needs and wants of their members. If that doesn’t happen, the chapter’s not long for this world.
David Murray says
Robert, I don’t disagree with a thing you say, except to add a point to this: “I hope IABC’s leadership will put chapter support back on the front-burner because as go the chapters, so goes IABC.”
I think for an international association, enabling association-hosted social networking is almost as important as chapter development these days.
Happily, there are two front burners on a stove.
Sean, thanks for your encouraging post from Cleveland, my hometown. I wish you IABCers would take over the Browns.
David Murray says
Or, in the assessment of a longtime industry watcher who would prefer to remain anonymous:
“IABC will continue to be a milquetoast, boring, irrelevant, insipid organization, membership in which is simply a matter of pro forma professional behavior for 99 communicators out of a hundred.”
Robert J Holland, ABC says
Well, I vehemently disagree with this person’s assessment — and find it particularly telling that he would level such a criticism anonymously. Geez, at least I put my criticism out there on my blog for everyone to pick apart.
While I believe IABC can do a heck of a lot more hands-on, active support of chapters, and while I have felt at times that my association could be more vocal in its advocacy of our profession, the reason I re-up every year is because IABC is filled with creative, smart, vibrant communicators. And the association provides resources and information that help me learn and grow as a communicator.
And I would especially challenge the notion that 99% of members feel the way this person does.
I’ve refrained from wading into this discussion up to now, because, as a member of the Toronto chapter, which, as David notes in his original post is one of the healthiest ones, who am I to talk. After all, in a city of millions, where there are large enough numbers of communicators to make our chapter the largest one in the world, the revenue from those people makes it easier for our chapter to present good speakers and run valuable skills development seminars – and they do!
However, having read “anonymous’s” comment, I have to back Robert up here.
First, I have always had an issue with people criticizing things but hiding behind “anonymous”. That is cowardly and lacking in integrity to me. Unless this person WORKS for the IABC organization – as in, they pay his/her salary – then he/she has nothing to fear and nothing to lose by giving his or her name with that criticism. The fact that he/she refuses to do that makes this person’s opinion not only irrelevant to me, but irresponsible in case someone who doesn’t know better takes the word of “anonymous” as truth.
I’ve been a member of IABC for coming on to 10 years. I joined when I was at the beginning of my career in hopes of meeting others in my field, learning more about the industry I’d chosen to work in, gaining more skills and information about how to do my job better and possibly finding a mentor or two. My membership in IABC has done ALL those things for me through the years.
Granted, I’m lucky enough to be a member of a local chapter that is lucky enough to be well-funded, but I know people in a number of other places who’s chapters also do a great job of offering skills-development, networking opportunities and access to information.
I notice that “anonymous” doesn’t offer any suggestions on how IABC could improve it’s service, nor does he/she offer an alternative for something that offers more valuable services. Personally, I find people who can’t do anything more useful than criticizing others without offering any alternatives to be: “milquetoast, boring, irrelevant, insipid” and don’t usually waste my time on them, or their opinions. Have the fortitude and integrity to put your name to your criticisms, or stop wasting our time, “anonymous”.
David Murray says
As “anonymous” gets piled on, we ought to acknowledge that it was my choice to post his insults. I did so because it rings partly true to me.
I actually think IABC president Julie Freeman will agree with me when I say this: One of IABC’s weaknesses over the years is its culture of smugness and smarm.
Very often, internal and external critics of IABC have been smiled at condescendingly, patted on the head like precocious children and then pilloried with platitudes, and I believe some others will back me up on this.
More than once I’ve heard Julie criticized by IABC veterans for being “icy.” I’ve always preferred Julie’s cut-and-dried explanations to the glib dismissals I and other IABC critics got from previous regimes.
How an organization receives criticism is hugely important. I think IABC is getting better at considering criticism, and it’s high time.
Sue Horner says
At the point where someone on the inside is saying IABC is “boring, irrelevant” is the point where that person should be saying, “here’s what I think needs to be done and here’s how I am going to help.” If the comment is from the outside, how can he/she possibly know?
I’m getting wired up on this now.
Critics are entitled to their opinions. But again I will say: “If you don’t like the way an organization is run, then step up and help to change things. Don’t just stand on the side-lines doing nothing other than complaining.”
Membership organizations are always hampered to some extent by financial considerations. Particularly at the chapter level, which is what Robert’s original post was talking about you can only do what you can pay for with membership contributed dollars, augmented to some small extent by international support.
Even at the international level where admittedly there are more dollars available, IABC is also trying to meet the expectations of a much larger pool of “customers” which makes it that much harder to be all things to all people.
David: you say “How an organization receives criticism is hugely important.” I would agree with that, but would also counter: “How critics get involved to help fix the issues they identify is AS important.”
To me this comes down to a very simple choice for those bitching about how IABC runs: “Either get involved and help make the organization better by contributing your time and talent, or walk away from IABC and forget about the organization. But don’t just stand around complaining without offering any solutions. That’s a waste of everyone’s time.
David Murray says
By your reasoning:
• A.O. Scott shouldn’t criticize a movie if he doesn’t have suggestions for how to make it better.
• Rachel Maddow shouldn’t critique President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy if she’s not willing to pitch in and help.
• I shouldn’t complain that my Volkswagen’s computerized windshield wipers don’t work very well if I’m unable to suggest alternative engineering and get out the soldering iron and make it happen.
In fact, all criticism in the world must be “constructive” and no one should say a negative word without being willing to drop everything to “be the change they want to see in the world.”
It’s just this schoolmarm nonsense that has discouraged insiders and outsiders at IABC (and a million other institutions) from advancing their legitimate ideas.
One of the wisest things I ever read was a prayer that Larry Ragan wrote in a Catholic church newsletter a few decades ago. I’d pay a hundred bucks to have the exact words right now, because they were good. But essentially, it was a reflection on “insiders and outsiders.”
Insiders, who work incrementally to make their institutions better. Who understand the system, who know where the levers are and who want to make things better just as fervently as the outsiders do.
And outsiders, who can say things insiders can’t, who can push for more radical change, who help pressure the crucial insiders to move in the right direction, and away from the wrong direction.
Larry was praying for insiders and outsiders to understand their need for each other even when they made one another uncomfortable.
I thought it was one of the most simultaneously idealistic and realistic prayers I’ve ever heard expressed.
And now Kristen, I pray that prayer for you.
David, I like you, and I respect you, but this last comment of yours was complete and utter bullsh*t!
Here’s the difference between the situations you cite and my objection to the complainers about IABC – the people in your objections don’t have the skills, knowledge or access to effectively have an impact on those situations.
Communicators, whether or not they are IABC members DO, in fact have the capability to contribute to this situation and potentially make it better by offering their knowledge and participation.
While I appreciate your prayers, David, they really aren’t necessary for me. I suggest you re-direct them to the poor souls who do nothing but bitch while standing on the sidelines who through their very inaction are able to continue to lament the fact that “they” aren’t doing a very good job in perpetuity.
In contrast, when I don’t like something I usually take action to change it if I can. Prayers are great, but as the saying goes: “The Lord helps those, who help themselves.”
David Murray says
Kristen, let’s focus on the one area in this particular conversation on which we agree:
I, too, like me and (most of the time) respect me.
Other than that, we’re at loggerheads, because I simply don’t see IABC’s sideline critics as any part of IABC’s problems, whatever those problems are.
(And for the record, I don’t know that IABC or its chapters have deep problems that a pickup in the economy won’t solve.)
I think these “poor souls who do nothing but bitch” are a straw man. Who are these “poor souls” that you’re fuming about, exactly? One person who sent me an anonymous comment? Who else?
And whoever “they” are, why do you assume “they” have the requisite talent to right the wrongs “they’re” remarking on?
If it’s the anonymous commenter you’re talking about, I can tell you for certain: He (or she) definitely does NOT have these skills. That doesn’t mean we should ignore everything she (or he) says.
“If it’s the anonymous commenter you’re talking about, I can tell you for certain: He (or she) definitely does NOT have these skills. That doesn’t mean we should ignore everything she (or he) says.
But that’s just it, David. Your anonymous commenter doesn’t actually SAY anything! Anything anyone can DO something about, anyway.
What you quoted this anonymous person as saying was this: “”IABC will continue to be a milquetoast, boring, irrelevant, insipid organization, membership in which is simply a matter of pro forma professional behavior for 99 communicators out of a hundred.”
What is ANYONE supposed to do with, or about that opinion?? I don’t even see any “because of …” in there.
Is IABC supposed to be psychically reading the minds of their critics and determining how to fix things accordingly? Like I said before, it’s the easiest thing in the world to just criticize something.
I have no objection to someone offering constructive criticism as long as it’s realistic and actionable. But I don’t see value in random criticism that offers neither of those things.
Ultimately, we could go back and forth on this ad infinitum, because we clearly don’t agree, but I don’t see any point to doing that, because I also don’t see any common ground between our positions.
We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I feel pretty certain the world will survive it!
David Murray says
“What is ANYONE supposed to do with, or about that opinion??”
We can agree that no one is supposed to do anything with it.
What we can’t agree on is whether an opinion must be “actionable” to be valid.
You say yes, I say no.
(You say stop, I say go go go!)
Onward and upward (and unless you have more to add, the last word).
Robert J Holland, ABC says
Ok, kids. Go back to your corners. 🙂
This is an interesting discussion, but one that unfortunately has veered from the original issue, which is that IABC needs to take a more active role in helping chapters that are struggling.
But before we leave this argument, I just have to say that I lean more toward Kristen’s corner than yours, David. I’ve always felt that anonymous criticism is the weakest kind because a) there is no context for the criticism, b) there is usually no grounding for the criticism, and c) the critic obviously doesn’t feel strongly enough about its validity to stand by it.
As for your comparisons with Rachel Maddow, et al, that argument just doesn’t hold water. The difference in those examples and an IABC member who criticizes the association is that the IABC member/critic has a vested (and financial) interest in the association. He or she is part of it and therefore has somewhat of an obligation to jump in and help rather than stand on the sidelines and holler. And if that critic is not a member, he or she is a member of the profession and at least has that vested interest.
I’ve been critical of IABC over the last few years because I believe it has favored expansion at the expense of helping its existing chapters survive. And I don’t believe it’s just about the economy. Way back when I was on the executive board in the mid ’90s, I remember working with quite a few struggling chapters, some of which no longer exist. I would just hate for that to happen more than it has to.
And I’m not just a critic. I’ve invested quite a bit of time and energy in IABC and will continue to do so because I believe the association is important to our profession and the people who work in it.
David Murray says
And Rachel Maddow is a U.S. citizen and has a vested interest in the nation. Her contribution IS thoughtful criticism, I might reply.
Kristen, Robert, I believe you bothered to attack this particular attacker back, and with such force, mainly because you’re defensive of IABC and you feel that a nasty sneer at the association is a nasty sneer at you.
If such an insult comes from an anonymous person, then you attack the cowardice of anonymous people. If it comes from an IABC member, you tell them to pitch in or shut up. If it comes from an outsider you say, “What does he know?”
The main problem is that you like IABC, you identify with IABC, and in the end, a gratitous slap at IABC is a gratuitous slap at you.
That grown up, veteran members feel that way—that’s the very best thing IABC has going, and I daresay (as a new IABC member, as a longtime IABC outside critic AND as the publisher of the anonymous insult) that those bastards at PRSA would kill or die to enjoy such affection from its milquetoast, boring, irrelevant, insipid members!
(P.S. I realize this argument exceeded most readers’ tolerance several exchanges ago; to you I have only one question: WHY ARE YOU STILL READING?! GO ENJOY YOUR WEEEKEND!?!)
Judy Gombita says
Personally, I think IABC is suffering from an identity problem, in terms of who are its target members and how, organizationally, IABC wants to be perceived.
Officially (post-branding exercise) it bills itself as an international “multi-disciplinary” association, yet for some reason IABC (staff, some members) appear to take the stance that IABC is an international “public relations” association…even though I don’t believe other groups/stakeholders see it in that role, let alone the fact that an international public relations association already exists….
Talk to people–generally they see IABC members as primarily being employed in the employee communication function–or as organizational communication consultants–albeit some under the umbrella of the (vague) “corporate communications” function.
Generally, if individuals are employed in the public relations function (particularly in the various levels of government, non-profits, education institutions) they choose to belong to their national public relations association–although some individuals retain membership in both associations.
I used to hold memberships in both IABC and CPRS, but let the former lapse (despite having been a very active volunteer/board member for several years “in the biggest IABC chapter in the world”), once the focus of my career/responsibilities shifted from communication management to public relations.
I offer some “personality disorder” examples:
IABC Fact Sheet:
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) enables a global network of communicators working in diverse industries and disciplines to identify, share and apply the world’s most effective communication practices.
From the boilerplate of a recent news release:
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global network of communication professionals committed to improving organizational effectiveness through strategic communication.
Yet on the About section of the website:
Founded in 1970, The International Association of Business Communicators provides a professional network of over 15,500 business communication professionals in over 80 countries. Our members hold positions in:
– Public relations/Media relations [first on the list, even though the later box indicates only 13% of the membership works in this area]
* * *
What I found most intriguing (“spin?”) was this question in the current Be Heard survey (current, lapsed and non-members)
Of which professional association(s) are you a member? Please choose as many as apply. If your answer is “none,” please leave blank and proceed to the next question.
– National communication association (e.g., PRSA, CPRS)
– Regional communication association (e.g., pan-European)
– Association with alternative focus (e.g., HR, marketing, investor relations, management)
Hello…there is no “national communication association” in Canada. There is, however, a national public relations society/association, CPRS.
Why would the architects of this survey feel the need to muddy the waters, and pretend that PRSA and CPRS (the two examples given) were “communication” associations? Heck, PRSA even voted at its recent Assembly not to include the word “communication” in any of its mandate.
In conclusion, perhaps the Richmond chapter of IABC should look to differentiating itself more strongly from the local PRSA chapter (of which Robert is also a member), in terms of mandate and focus. Go with your core strengths; offer programs that aren’t going to be offered by a national PR association or its chapters.
I’m doubtful that help will come (re: differentiation) from IABC HQ, though, with its existing personality disorder.
David Murray says
Judy, this is astute, and something that’s been itching for years. I’m going to do some thinking on it and probably issue a separate post on the subject. Thanks.
Sean Williams says
David, et. al. — Judy’s hit it spot on. IABC has been trying to rebrand our profession, away from that smarmy “PR” stuff to defensible “communication.” The only problem is that when most business people hear “communication” they think of telephone systems and Internet connectivity. Since becoming involved with the Institute for PR, I’ve embraced Public Relations as a descriptor for my profession. I’m not a press agent or a publicist, but PR is what I do, according to every definition I can find.
When I joined IABC 18 years ago, I joined it instead of PRSA because I did employee communications, not media. So, the perception that IABC had a different focus than PRSA was true.
Now we know that internal communication people don’t make as much money as media relations types, because businesses don’t always think of internal communication as something requiring professionals.
When the topic of a merger with PRSA came up a few years ago, one colleague said he’d never vote for it — words to the effect: “Internal Communication needs program support, and PRSA would just gut it in favor of more programming on getting media hits.”
Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But IABC could stand to sharpen its focus as the tools, vehicles and content of our profession continues to change.
David Murray says
Well, now we’re getting into really interesting territory, all. Look for another post on this, this week or next.
Judy Gombita says
Actually, Sean, despite the branding project and its resulting “multi-disicplinary” tag (which I don’t disagree with, by the way), I don’t believe past iterations of IABC EVER focused on “PR” stuff; this is a more recent “aspirational” role. Nothing to do with a “defensible communication” descriptor.
Why? I suspect it’s because saying you “work in PR” seems sexier than saying you “work in internal or organizational communications.” Despite all of the bad press (pun intended) the public relations function receives, particularly the work done by agencies.