Trust: It's "the difference between an organization that is profitable and thriving and one that is divisive, superficial and decaying from the inside out."
So said veteran IABC staffer Natasha Nicholson, in the editor's letter for this month's issue of the association's ezine, Communication World.
But like most current and former IABC staffers and board members that I reached out to this week, she wasn't talking about the troubles at IABC. Not directly, anyway.
However, I have spoken to several deeply knowledgeable sources on condition of anonymity, and a coherent story is beginning to emerge, along with a few urgent questions about the future of the organization.
Apparently California has especially scary laws regarding employment disclosure, so people are understandably freaked about divulging details of executive director Chris Sorek's departure. It will have to suffice to say that Sorek dramatically didn't mesh with the association's culture during a year of major culture change, and the body rejected the organ.
The bigger question, my sources agreed, is the International Executive Board and its 12 volunteer members, who hired Sorek in the first place. They voted for him unanimously, and former board member Jennifer Wah says that though she had some "niggles" about Sorek from the outset, she doesn't look back with regret. "You go with what your gut tells you and with what's in front of you," she says.
But with many of the same personalities still in place, the board must now replace Sorek less than a year later. Those personalities are that much more important, say my sources, because over the last several years the board has taken steps to increase its governing power, whittling the title of the top top paid staffer from president to executive director and restructuring itself in various ways to consolidate its influence.
While many IABC watchers see the hiring of the next executive director as a make-or-break moment for the organization, insiders worry that the board isn't offering enough salary for what promises to be a very difficult turnaround job, in the expensive headquarters city of San Francisco. Julie Freeman, who was IABC's last paid chief, says the organization is paying demonstrably less than the market rate for top execs at an association its size.
There's also a worrisome lack of consensus about what kind of person IABC should find to fill Sorek's smouldering shoes. Some near the top of the organization think it's essential to have someone with a communication background. Others, including Freeman and IABC Fellow Shel Holtz, think association management is the essential skill set. "It appears there are operations problems, it appears there is turmoil," says Freeman. IABC needs "a seasoned pro" who can handle the logistics and byzantine politics of a 15,000-member association.
(What about Freeman, as an interim cleaner-upper? After all, she ran the organization steadily for more than a decade, she lives in San Francisco and she's as known a known quantity as you could hope for. She tells me, "I've learned never to say never." But another source close to the board says, "No way." There's too much history between Freeman and some board members for the board to bring her back into the fold.)
So who, to rebuild staff morale that by all accounts was devastated during Sorek's tenure? (And with concrete consequences: I'm told the main reason that IABC was initially unable to post on its website the news of Sorek's departure was that all of IABC's IT people had either been fired or had quit.)
Who, to replace the creaky old website that was supposed to be replaced a year ago and still isn't going to be unveiled in time for the 2013 World Conference?
Who, to solidify members' confidence and to implement the dramatic strategic changes Sorek and his board began this year?
Who, to reopen courteous and candid lines of communication with members, media and other IABC watchers? Claire Watson, IABC's new head of external relations, missed a
scheduled inteview with me yesterday, and failed to offer any explanation. Communications director Aaron Heinrich mentioned a town hall meeting that's been scheduled for June 25 at the World Conference in New York, but otherwise refused to comment on any of the assertions my sources made. "We're not responding to anything further until then in order to give the members an opportunity to ask and hear for themselves," he told me by email.
And who, to reestablish that indispensible intangible that Natasha Nicholson articulated so well in Communication World: trust?
No, at this point it's not a matter of what happened to whom at IABC.
It's a matter of what's about to be done, by whom—and soon.
Does IABC's very survival hang in the balance? I don't know. But very much in question is its status as an entity worthy of the voluntary effort and goodwill of good and talented communicators.
"IABC people are generally some of the best people I know: smart, principled, fun-loving, and humane," longtime IABC volunteer Paul Matalucci told me. "The past year has been rough, some bad choices were made, and good people suffered. To move forward, we need to tap back into the good nature of IABC members and staff, many of whom feel rightly pissed off. Some organizational soul-searching about what created the current mess would be wise."
Until New York then, I guess.