The opening session at the World Conference of the Association of Business Communicators is traditionally where the association shows all its 43-year-old, 14,000-member, million-dollar might, reminding members that it’s a Big Serious Official Grown-Up Thing that they belong to.
First, there’s a highly polished chairman's introduction. Then comes a big time keynoter. Then we meet an intimidating cast of lifetime achievers (called “Fellows,” at IABC). And the whole thing is graciously emceed by the glory-bathed chairman, ebullient on the cusp of the end of the one-year term.
At this year’s keynote event at the New York Hilton, one out of four would have to do.
The keynoter was far more appropriate than the inspirational types who IABC usually pays to flatter and inspire the audience. But it was on the grim side. Edelman Public Relations' CEO Richard Edelman pointed out that the public’s distrust of corporations is second only its suspicion of politicians. Edelman tried to crank the crowd up by expressing hope that public relations pros will beat advertising creeps to the subfecal nadir of public credulity, winning the right to fill journalistic websites with paid corporate content.
At least Edelman’s message fit within the confines of the explicable, which is more than I can still say about the freaky opening sequence, even after several hours’ mostly sober reflection. Select members of IABC’s popular crowd participated in a rehearsed flash mob that had them dancing, for a reason no one has yet been able to tell me, to Tom Petty’s song, “I Won’t Back Down.”
The weird scenes weirdened during the introduction of the new Fellows. The first, Mary Ann McCauley, gave a typically sweet thank-you speech, about how she can always depend on an IABCer in a pinch. Then the next inductee, the universally beloved Suzanne Salvo, went all Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on their asses, bringing up “the elephant in the room”—the abrupt but by consensus long overdue recent departure of IABC chairman Chris Sorek.
And just when it seemed things were calming down after Salvo’s salvo, the lame-duck chairman Kerby Meyers, who oversaw the most scandalous and embarrassing year in the not-entirely-uneventful history of IABC, gave a lengthy defense of his work, a desperately awkward nine-minute-plus speech that could have been (but alas wasn't) summed up as: You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Perhaps the only keynote worthy of the name during this opening session was Suzanne Salvo’s last shot, when she reminded everyone why she and other oldtimers have stuck with the association this long. The crowd's reaction showed that there's still goodwill in the reservoir.
What does the average member care about all this? Not much at all, according to a story at Ragan.com. But the average member doesn't create the culture at IABC. The IABC stalwarts set the tone for the organization, because they're the ones who volunteer to run it. Which ones are still on board after a year of infighting?
We'll have a better sense later this week, at Tuesday’s Annual General Meeting, and the open town hall meeting scheduled for immediately after. Look for a report here on Wed.