After more than two months of growing unrest among members of the International Association of Business Communicators, volunteer chairman Kerby Meyers is apologetic, but paid executive director Chris Sorek isn’t sorry at all.
That’s what I gathered from an audio recording provided to me by an attendee of a town hall IABC’s leaders held at its Leadership Institute meeting, held on Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz.*
“And so it begins,” was the caption that attendee Suzanne Salvo put on this Facebook picture of Meyers (at lectern), Sorek (seated, second from left) and a number of IABC international executive board members.
Meyers, who had heretofore been the chief spokesman for IABC during this crisis that erupted when half the headquarters staff was sacked in late November, opened in his usual shambling style. He reiterated that all the changes that seem so vivid and radical to IABC members now actually came about through years of plodding work in “committees—surveys—all kinds of things feeding into a big long process.”
Next, Gloria Walker tried to parry the main thrust of member criticism. She’s in charge of the proposed change to the association’s accreditation program, and she reiterated that the current accreditation process is hopelessly labor-intensive, relying on volunteers who aren’t available. The test is also too difficult, which results in high failure rates among test-takers “in Europe, Asia, Russia.” So while a plan for reform was “purely a proposal,” Walker insisted that something must be done to streamline the process and make it easier for less experienced pros to get accredited.
And at the end of the meeting, a video showed off the new digital version of the old print magazine, Communication World and a new website, whose sharp look and sophisticated portal structure deeply impressed one observer who I spoke with.
But the main event was the chance for the approximately 175 Leadership Institute attendees—most of them regional or chapter leaders or others with more of a stake in the association than your average member—to finally put their questions to Sorek, the executive director who they hired last summer but from whom they’ve heard little since.
(Meyers claims he gagged Sorek, preferring that the executive director focus on making change rather than communicating about it.)
If the audience expected Sorek to be contrite—well, they had to settle for barely polite.
Whatever their questions, Sorek’s responses fell under one of the following four categories.
You have no idea what a mess I inherited.
“There are a lot of things that have been going on inside the organization that not a lot of people have seen,” Sorek said in response to an early question about the bad publicity IABC has suffered. “Quite honestly, if I were to give you a little bit of an idea about what we walked into … our website—our IABC website—literally is hanging on by a thread. If you were to take a look at that website right now—and I’m just talking about from a technical perspective—if somebody would have taken a plug out of a socket, we wouldn’t be online anymore. We have no redundancy. The hardware that’s inside the system is ten to twelve years old. The software is literally broken, has no future, can’t go anyplace. It’s not sustainable. And what we have to do is take a real hard look at that. … It takes a lot to get that done, trust me.”
It wasn’t just the IABC website that was messed up, it was the culture, Sorek suggested in answers that sounded less like responses than prepared rants:
“One of the things that I noticed when I took this job and I was kind of scared about was the fact that the people in San Francisco [at IABC headquarters] were divorced from the people that were the volunteers, and the people that were at the chapters. And I still remember people saying, ‘Well, we do this and they do that.’ Okay? Horsehockey! I’d say something else, but I could get in trouble for that. The whole deal is that we’re all supposed to be working at this together.”
He went on to blame, though not name, his predecessor, longtime IABC executive director Julie Freeman, for creating a rift between IABC’s paid staff and its volunteer board: “I’m sure some of the people on this board would say, when was the last time they talked to the former chief executive? They probably didn’t. And if they did, it was probably a one-off conversation. So it’s—I don’t want that. I want people to talk to me. And I think my staff will know that I’m literally in everything, and I want to be in everything that we do as an organization.”
This association barely exists at all, so what’s the big deal about changing it?
Describing Meyers’ decision to give him a voice in the IABC controversy as “kind of like letting the dog off the leash,” Sorek barked loud, ascribing his lack of patience with the IABC’s traditionalists to his passion for communication:
“You’re looking at a person who’s really passionate about this job because I’ve been doing it for so long. And I feel the pain when you go in and somebody says, ‘Gee, what is communications? Does it really mean anything to the bottom line? … How do you guys add value to the bottom line?’ I mean, I’ve added value to the bottom line of 40 different listed companies, I’ve helped corporates around the world, I’ve built charities—and quite honestly, when I take a look at some of the campaigns we’re doing—some of them are absolutely fabulous, and nobody knows about it. Nobody knows about that, nobody knows about ABCs. Nobody knows anything about IABC.”
Though he joined IABC briefly in the mid-1980s, he said, he hasn’t been a member for years and never got his ABC accreditation. “Has it hurt my career not being an ABC? No, it hasn’t. I want to make it relevant to the profession. I want to make the communications profession a profession.”
If you only knew how hard I work, how much I care—and what nonsense I have to put up with.
Sorek implied that his work ethic intimidates his staff and assured everyone that change is being made “twenty-four seven, three sixty five” at headquarters—despite the nitwits he has to deal with.
Nitwits from the past, who didn’t know how to do internal communication properly and who spammed members to the point that IABC’s email open rate is 14 percent.
And nitwits from the present: “I think one of the things that really surprised me, that came up recently, was that one of our lapsed members had written something about the fact that they hadn’t been notified about their lapsing. And as it turns out—there are so many problems … that I have to watch over and take a look at—as it turns out, that person got three emails from us about their lapsing. Three emails. You’re lapsing, you’re gonna lapse, oh my God, you lapsed. And the person comes back and says, ‘No one talked to me.’ Well you know, we have 14,600 members as of a couple days ago. It’s kind of difficult to call up everybody that’s gonna be lapsing.”
(Especially when the association has a non-renewal rate of 25 percent, an alarming number that was not discussed during the town hall meeting. Do the math, and you realize that the association must replace 3,650 lapsed members every year just to maintain its current membership. How?)
I’m just your humble servant.
While he was convincing members they have no idea how hard he has it or how much he cares about transforming IABC from a backwater into a transformative institution, Sorek seamlessly and repeatedly inserted the language of servant leadership:
“So if it sounds like I’m a little bit passionate about what I do—about working for you—I work for you,” he said. “You tell me what to do. The board gives me my marching orders every day. That’s who I work for. I’m your servant, okay? As is my staff. We work for you. So you tell us what you want done. We make it happen.”
For IABC members who feel like telling Sorek what you want done, he offered his direct-dial phone number, and added: "I'm there all the time."
The question, for this longtime IABC watcher who knows how radically Sorek's communication style differs from anyone else who has ever run this association, is for how long.
* The recording I received was not of perfect sound quality, so the video recording of the meeting, when IABC releases it as promised, may differ by a word here or there from the quotes you see above. I’ll post that link as soon as I have it. Meanwhile, I've obtained a preview of a quarterly update in the new strategic direction, which IABC leaders will issue to all members later today. Interested in readers' reaction to that, too.