I leave you for a week of holiday merriment with a personal performance of a favorite song from the first Christmas record I ever had, John Denver's Rocky Mountain Christmas. Ladies and gentlement, this is as much a Christmas carol as "Silent Night," "Jingle Bells" and "Folsom Prison Blues."
Writing Boots is shutting down the production line for a week, to let it cool. Happy New Year's. I mean it.
IABC leaders shouldn't feel too bad about the trouble they've had communicating change. Communicators at the egalitarian Occupy movement bolloxed it up pretty badly themselves, according to a great Wired story, "A Eulogoy for #Occupy." Here's the operative excerpt from Quinn Norton's piece:
It’s the job of a media to tell the truth to its society, but Occupy’s homegrown media refused to tell itself the truth about what was going wrong in the camps. That let the arbiters of truth become a few young men who figured out how to stream video from their cellphones. The livestreamers got drunk off their modicum of fame, behaving as tiny entitled prophets to the movement. Their ethics were incoherent, what they filmed was arbitrary, but they mistook randomness for truth. They had just discovered documenting events, and thousands of people flocked to see them do it. But without any traditions of narrative, they didn’t see their own commentary enter the story, how every shot and angle and word overlaid was editorial.
There was no critique in Occupy, no accountability. At first it didn’t matter, but as life grew messy and complicated, its absence became terrible. There wasn’t even a way to conceive of critique, as if the language had no words to describe the movement’s faults to itself. There was at times explicit gagging of Occupy’s media teams by the camp [General Assembly, Occupy's governing body], to prevent anything that could be used to damage the movement from reaching the wider media. Self-censorship plagued those who weren’t gagged, because everyone was afraid of retaliation. No one talked about the systemic and growing abuses in the camps, or the increasingly poisonous GAs.
Journalist Adam Rothstein showed up on the day of the first march in Portland and was there every day until their eviction, two days before Zuccotti’s. He started off with sanitation and doing the dishes, moved to media, and eventually started their paper, the Portland Occupier, independent from the General Assembly. ...
His original idea was to tell positive stories from the camp. He worked with media teams from Boston, LA, Chicago, and New York, and traveled to other camps to get the stories out. In time, Rothstein came to see that Occupy’s media needed to tell all the stories of what was going on: the wonderful and the terrible. By then it was too late.
I asked him if the movement’s media had failed it. “Yeah,” he replied ...
UPDATE: I participated in the Q&A that IABC held this morning, and I do not need to attend the one they're holding this afternoon. I've heard enough.
Here's the score: IABC is being run by two people who do not know or care very much about the organization's culture or its past. They also don't know much about its future.
How do I know? They speak in business jargon that grates on the ear of an IABCer. They are not killing the print edition of Communication World. They are, according to chairman Kerby Meyers, "moving Communication World into the all-digital space." And paid president Chris Sorek uses consultantspeak, dismissing questions about staffing decisions by saying, "it was a business judgment," and referring to the gassiest concepts as real things, as in "a professional development strand."
Not that it's uncommon for assocation heads and business leaders to talk in such terms. It's just offensive to the ear of most IABC members, who appreciate clear communication and straightforward language. Meyers and Sorek don't understand how they sound to IABC members, because they don't understand IABC culture.
Meyers vaulted from IABC obscurity into his position as many longtime IABCers wondered in a catchphrase, "Kerby who?" In his announcement yesterday, Meyers said he learned some things from the controversy that ensued following the stuttering announcement of the IABC restructuring. I asked him what he learned. Here is what he said: "The stakeholder awareness needs to be better. We looked at that and were not as good and thorough as we should have been. And for that I apologize to those who felt that we didn't communicate that well enough. We did communicate to leaders, and we did not follow up with all members."
I followed up and asked whether or not Meyers had perhaps misunderstood the tight-knit, hands-on culture of IABC, but he did not respond to that point.
Whatever you think IABC was or is, these guys don't much know or care. Which doesn't necessarily mean they don't have a vision for what IABC will be. They do. But it's a hazy vision at the moment. For instance, they have little idea of what the new IABC accreditation program will look like, and there was some confusion and marble-mouthed talk about whether the old "ABC" designation would still apply to members who have earned it, even after the association develops a new "global standard" for accreditation. There's a committee involved, and rest assured, "a considerable amount of work will be going on within that consultation."
Look: Maybe a couple sets of cold eyes is just what IABC needed after years of dowdy work. It strikes me as likely that maybe some drudges needed to be cleared out of the headquarters office and some cobwebs needed to be cleared out of the programs they'd been running. Associations don't always attract the most crackerjack people, and when folks stay around anywhere too long, they get sleepy.
Also importantly: No one is arguing (yet) with any of the actual changes Meyers and Sorek propose to make.
But if you're gonna make big change in an organization whose main product is its culture, you've got to know precisely what it is you're changing and have some idea what the reaction is going to be.
I don't think these guys had a clue. Let's hope for IABC's sake that they have one now. And further, that members of IABC's executive board realize that their participation and counsel is sorely needed by these leaders at this precarious moment in the long and useful and meaningful history of IABC.
A little more than two weeks ago, members of the International Association of Business Communicators learned through a mumbling Friday announcement and then a grumbling Monday follow-up that the association was laying off half its 32-person headquarters staff. (Later to hire differently-skilled replacements, we learned later, for a net loss of only five employees.)
In the days that followed, many high-profile IABC members expressed their disappointment at the way the announcement was done; Ragan.com has an account of how the controversy grew.
But no one spoke more adamantly than Roger D'Aprix, widely considered the father of modern organizational communication. "I have literally spent a career fighting the sort of Friday afternoon massacre carried out by new IABC executive director Chris Sorek," D'Aprix commented on this blog. "I join Brian Kilgore, Shel Holtz and Tudor Williams in condemning the way this has been handled. Smart CEO's spend some time learning the lay of the land before they launch massive change. They also prepare their constituencies and offer compelling rationales. Aside from a few platitudes about 'exciting change,' what is the persuasive rationale for such drastic action? The membership should demand accountability and candid explanations for why these actions are being taken."
Last week IABC announced it would release more information this week. To which Kare Anderson, who identified herself on this site as a "five-time IABC speaker and former WSJ reporter" commented: "More news on the 18th? Does that appear to be a low standard for transparent, timely communication to you or is it just me?"
On the 18th, members received an update from the association as promised. Read the whole thing for details, but mainly:
1. IABC is going all electronic, the last print issue of its 40-plus year-old magazine Communication World slated for January. Soon, CW will be reintroduced as a "new, content-rich Communication World experience. 2. All IABC "premium content," previously $99 per use, will be available for free; IABC will also stop publishing books altogether.
2. IABC is doing fine financially.
3. The Gold Quill awards program will be easier to enter and judges will offer "greater feedback and insight to entrants."
4. IABC's accreditation program, currently suspended for revamping, will be reintroduced in the second half of 2013. The new and improved program will "address the needs of communication professionals across the career road map by providing benchmarks along the path to professional excellence."
As for the way all the changes were announced, chairman Kerby Meyers said:
"Could we have done some things differently? Yes. Should we have done some things better? Yes. Personally, I have learned a number of lessons. Our communications fell short and messages did not land well. We tried to be respectful, considerate and sensitive to the needs of our departed colleagues as well as those who continue to serve our members. Now, however, I believe it's time to look forward."
IABC has invited members to join a conference call/webinar at 7:00 a.m.PST and/or at 4:00 p.m. PST, for Q&A. I'll be on the first call and will report on it here as the exchanges warrant. If you'd prefer to hear the call firsthand, the call-in information is at the bottom of the announcment.
I've written and thrown away a few things on Newtown. Lying awake tonight I remembered this post, from June of 2009. It's all I've got. —ed.
W.H. Auden said that words aren't all humans have—just all we have to work with.
For communicators, this is especially true—and, in cases where words fail, agonizing.
Often word-failures and the pain that goes with them are merely a useful sign that something larger is wrong. What we can't explain, we must repair until we can.
Other issues defy words because they are so hopelessly complex; to explain them would require more time than is available. Yes, those issues are as much ones of time and logistics as anything else. But we live in a society spread so increasingly thin that we unblinkingly use the terms "friend" and "community" to describe near strangers on the Internet. So these "time and logistics" problems tend to proliferate these days.
And then we come to the final situation in which words fail. "Words fail," we assert. "No words can describe," we admit. "Words cannot express": the pain, the sorrow, the hurt, the sadness, the horror, the agony, the emptiness.
Occasionally we say this about joy. (A mutual friend recently had a daughter and another friend wrote, "I can't even really express how happy I felt for him.")
But not as often—and without as much attendant frustration.
I wish I could get used to the idea that some feelings and ideas are beyond words, and lay off the lash.
If Auden could do it, why can't I?
1. Work in the White House, doing any kind of writing for any length of time for any old U.S. president. At this point, you are probably getting too old for that shit.
2. Win a Cicero Speechwriting Award from Vital Speeches, which happily just issued our 2013 Call for Entries. All speeches written in 2012 are eligible and the deadline is Feb. 15.
It's not easy winding down for the holidays. Play this beautiful documentary produced and narrated by my friend Tony Judge, and go about your business. It will let you wrap presents, and it will occasionally grab your attention and you will say, "Is there really a place like that on earth?" Tony's a good man to share that sense of wonder with.
Doing the dishes the other day, my daughter Scout and I were singing a John Denver song and she tried some fancy vocal stunt and I told her to knock it off.
"You don't have that in your bag," I told her.
"What a mean thing to say," she told me.
Similarly, when I saw this funny and communicative and even poignant video created by communicators at the Dutch paints and chemicals company AkzoNobel to mark the departure of their longtime chief executive, I thought to myself, "Most corporate communication departments don't have that in their bag."
It's sophisticated, it's brilliantly produced, it's well acted (by employees, who were thus well directed) and it's actually full of ideas and contradictory truth. Oh, just watch the damn thing:
Well of course I don't have that in my bag, you say: That's a professionally made film and you're a communication generalist. But would you know who to hire to do such a film—and could you have guided the filmmakers through it?
If not, I think you must ask yourself, in this age of growing sophistication in corporate storytelling, why not?
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something," Upton Sinclair said, "when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
This seems like a terribly important thing for a communicator to understand, no?
(Thanks to my wise young friend James Ylisela for putting this one back in my head—this time, for good.)
Last night was the launch party in St. Paul, for Tell My Sons, the book I helped Lt. Col. Mark Weber write before he dies. (It's now available in hardcover, and makes a great Christmas gift if Mark and I don't say so ourselves.)
The sorry remainder of my mind is thinking that I'd like to do this kind of collaborative writing again—and meanwhile knowing that this kind of project doesn't come along often. A partner this smart, this appreciative, this confident and humble and who's working as hard as I am, on the ultimate deadline? I've been to the mountaintop (as I describe on the Huffington Post) but will I ever get back?
* The above was actually written last Friday, in advance. Tomorrow, when I get my bearings, I'll tell you how I really felt today.