It's been a few years since I last attended an IABC World Conference. Ragan used to send me to cover the show, but I don't work for them anymore, and now they don't send anybody—even the few blocks from their heaquarters in Chicago, where the conference wraps up today.
That's a mistake, I think, because just as every sport needs a culminating annual event, so does a profession. And if the corporate communication biz has a World Series, that would be the IABC World Conference.
I've covered the World Conference many times, but not since ... geez, 2007, was it? I wondered if maybe I'd lost touch with the soul of the event, and of the 15,000-member association that puts it on. In the hallways and sessions, I realized I hadn't missed a thing. But later, in an interview with IABC's new top brass, I got the sense that maybe I shouldn't wait another five years to return.
You look great!
Business is great!
My clients are amazing!
That sort of b.s. is as expected at annual conferences as at high school reunions. But the lying should stop when the sessions start.
Alas: The opening keynote Sunday was an utterly content-free motivational speaker named Kevin Caroll, who shared the spit-shined story of his hard upbringing and his subsequent unlikely rise to become ... a motivational speaker traveling the country with a trunk full of red rubber balls. If he could only reach one person in IABC's audience of 1,300-plus with his message of—what was that darned message again?—then it would all be worth it, he said. So, still alive is the IABC tradition of using members' money to pay for speakers to condescend to members by telling them not too convincingly that they have the power to change the world through the use of red rubber balls and stuff. And of course Caroll got a big ovation here, just as he probably will next week, at the National Convention of Industrial Battery Salesmen.
Other signs that plus ça change, plus IABC la meme chose: Sprinkled liberally among useful breakout sessions, dull or sheister-ish conference presenters giving purposely foggy presentations to passive and credulous audiences. In one full day at the conference, I attended two sessions, both from "IABC All-Star Presenters" that were so clearly without value that I fruitlessly searched the eyes of fellow attendees for signs of life.
In another session, a friend of mine caused a stir when he questioned a the consultant/speaker's unsupported claim that mobile apps would be "pivotal" in creating employee engagement in organizations. My friend reported that he was fairly shouted down—not by the consultant, but by the crowd, who resented any tarnishing of The Next Shiny Thing.
I spoke at this conference, too—did my Speechwriting Jam Session—and there were tense moments as I waited for a "Conference Orientation" session to end, so I could get my projector set up. I paced around the speaker ready-room speculating loudly about what sort of adult fetus could require training in order to attend a fucking business conference. Finally I forced my way into the conference room, but then had to wait until the "instructor" finished singing an apparently original song, sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells."
Yes, "Mingle Well."
What the hell?
But before I fully gave over to the idea that IABC, like Trix cereal, is for kids, I had a sitdown interview with incoming volunteer chairman Kerby Meyers, and brand-new paid executive director Chris Sorek. These guys gave me hope that IABC's culture could change to become a bit more rigorous, more open to critical thinking and more nourising to people who already know how to mingle.
Sorek has deep and long experience as both a communicator and a business guy, and he brings the smarm-free bearing of a fellow who hasn't worked in an association all his life.
Meyers, compared to many of his over-polite predecessors, is a goateed assassin. He and the board have directed Sorek to review all IABC events, programs, products and services to see if they still make sense financially. Even IABC institutions, like Communication World? "I think it's fair to review the value of a print vehicle in 2012 and beyond," Meyers said, though he hastened to add that a change to CW might amount to no more than making it into a printable PDF.
Meyers and Sorek hinted at changes to Gold Quill judging, which they acknowledge hasn't been up to snuff in recent years. They're considering improvements to the ABC accreditation program, perhaps beginning to require accredited members to do continuing education in order to maintain their IABC status (like, by attending local chapter meetings, which often ache for senior members). And they're even thinking about creating a separate accreditation designation for senior communicators.
There's actually a 25-page strategic plan organized under three pillars—Content, Career and Business—but Meyers knows nobody's listening to that jazz—not even veterans like Wilma Mathews and Mary Ann McCauley, who he said listened to his plans and said, "We've heard all this before."
"We gotta get shit done," Meyers told me—not once but three times, prompting Sorek and Meyers to joke about creating buttons for the next conference that read, GSD.
Meyers and Sorek: Will they add some GSD to IABC? I guess we'll see.