This year the International Association of Business Communicators got away from a World Conference tradition of a plenary speech by the winner of an "Excel Award" for leadership communication. Usually this was a tedious talk, often ghostwritten by a communicator, about how seriously the CEO takes communication.
But there were lots of CEO voices at this week's World Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators in New York, the best four of which organized in a panel discussion on leadership and communication, with SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott, Ogilvy & Mather chairman emeritus Shelly Lazarus, Heineken USA CEO Dolf van den Brink and corporate turnaround specialist Peter Cuneo.
The bosses were preaching to the choir in the audience, and the choir sang back, bursting into applause at such remarks as:
"[Employees] have to believe they're doing something that will make a difference in the world somehow." —Lazarus
"[Employees] may even disagree with the direction you are espousing but they will go along with you because they want to believe that you have the answer." —Cuneo
"Anything worth communicating is almost always undercommunicated." —McDermott
"I often laugh when I see some CEO come on Squawk Box and say, 'I changed the culture in six months.' That's impossible." —Cuneo
And finally, Lazarus explained how she gains consumer insights she needs to advise CEOs. "I fly commercial and I use the public ladies room," Lazarus explained, adding that because of the "hermetically sealed" lives they lead, "It's amazing what CEOs find astonishing."
At a special town hall meeting Tuesday at the New York Hilton, members of IABC’s International Executive Board and a number of its delegates had just roundly applauded past-chair Kerby Meyers for his truculent rebuke of my association coverage over the last six months.
Walking out of the Grand Ballroom in search of a cab for the airport, I handed a friend a note: “As my dad used to say, when you’re getting run out of town, get out ahead and make it look like a parade.”
I understood Meyers’ soreness. It’s got to feel awful to take a job for glory and get shamed instead.
What was harder to understand was the defiant attitude expressed by newly minted chair Robin McCasland and the rest of the Board, none of whom owned up to specific missteps or promised any significant course correction, after one of the two most tumultuous years in the association’s history.
McCasland had a great chance to clear the slate in a speech during association’s Annual General Meeting, which preceded the town hall.
She acknowledged it had been a hard year—“the perfect storm,” she called it, in a standard leadership dodge that puts the responsibility on a vengeful God rather than a fallible Board.
She said IABC had traditionally been bad at communication over the years and promised improvement.
“Let’s be honest,” she said. “Not just recently—historically IABC has sucked at communicating with its own members, which is truly ironic. But … we’re living in an age of social media now, so we can’t go back to the time when we don’t communicate effectively with members. It’s never going to happen again.”
She mentioned that IABC would rebrand itself. She made the usual noises about increasing IABC’s focus on the chapters from now on, and she gave all chapter delegates homemade t-shirts that said, “I am IABC heart and soul.”
But she said the association wasn’t in a crisis. “I think what’s going on in Syria right now—that’s a crisis,” she said.
I think about what’s happened very close to my home state of Texas, what went on in Oklahoma, the people having their lives wiped out, the families wiped out, their possessions wiped out. That’s a crisis.
… IABC did have a crisis, back at the turn of the century. We were financially—we were out of money. And there were some really great people. Some of them are in this room, some of them who are friends of mine, who were leaders at the time, did what they needed to do, to get the organization moving forward again, and they did a phenomenal job. That was a crisis.
We have some very serious things we need to do and some tough things we need to look at to ensure we’re relevant going forward … but it’s not a crisis.
She added that “I acknowledge” people who feel the association is in crisis “because we have members of the organization that feel passionately about—whether it’s accreditation, or whether it’s Gold Quill—whatever that thing is that they care about at IABC, we love them for that. … But from where I sit, it’s a lot of work to do, but it’s not a crisis. And we’re going to get through this and we’re going to move on."
While she respects IABC members who defend their pet programs, McCasland doesn’t appear to appreciate critics from within and without who have chronicled and editorialized on the blind staggers the association has been suffering since sacking half its headquarters staff in November.
“I’m not going to waste my time with people who suck the life and energy out of what we’re trying to do,” she said. And during a photographic introduction to her personal life, McCasland went out of her way to address IABC’s unnamed critics, comparing us to her dog, which either humps or fights with every dog it sees in the park.
“Don’t be that dog,” she advised us, whoever we were.
Then the town hall commenced, with the whole 13-member board facing about 200 chapter delegates, close observers and curious members of IABC. PR man Aaron Heinrich facilitated, taking questions from the crowd, over a phone line and via Twitter.
A longtime member stepped up to the microphone to ask whether his “ABC” accreditation designation would still mean something after the launch of the association’s new accreditation program. He was told that the ABC would “continue to be recognized and respected”—but not how, exactly. McCasland invited the man to help plan a celebration of the ABC designation at next year’s conference. He gladly agreed, and sat down.
Someone from the Toronto chapter said she’d been having an embarrassingly hard time explaining IABC’s basic business model—the distribution of member dues and operational autonomy to chapters, regions and international HQ—to her suddenly curious members. Meyers responded in such a maniacally garbled way that he kept having to apologize for sounding “evasive.” She must have been sorry she had asked, especially when he concluded that the business model “in some ways doesn’t work, depending on how you think about it.”
A man named Mark asked when the much-discussed “Career Roadmap” would be unveiled as a tool members could actually use, but after about a minute of multi-directional gas expulsion by last year’s chair Adrian Cropley, walked away without an answer.
Unnamed IABC critic Allan Jenkins directed a question at Claire Watson, a high profile member who recently joined the paid staff as head of external relations. He wanted to know in what capacity Watson now makes her frequent comments in LinkedIn discussions of IABC. Is she speaking as a loyal IABC member, or as a paid staffer representing the association in an official capacity?
After McCasland pointed out that all IABC staffers were being automatically made members—presumably to symbolically reduce a perceived “us vs. them” mentality in the San Francisco HQ—Watson took the mic and told Jenkins she landed the staff job fair and square, in a “legitimate competition,” and was “selected by the panel.” She vowed to continue her online commentary, because she is “uniquely qualified” to do so. And somewhere Joseph Heller smiled.
Newly named IABC fellow Suzanne Salvo asked what the International Executive Board would do differently in its search for a new executive director to replace their short-tenured last hire, and make sure “we don’t end up in the same boat.” McCasland said a long-term interim director would soon be put in place, and she added that the next permanent executive director would be vetted by a global panel of members.
But what aspects of the hiring process that got Chris Sorek hired, Salvo insisted, had changed? “The process hasn’t changed,” McCasland said flatly. “The process is going to be the same.” Appearing stunned, Salvo sat down. Then got up, and left for the Fellows Dinner.
The precious hour of the town hall was ticking away, and the 200 original attendees dwindled to less than half that.
Though Heinrich had told me McCasland and Meyers were too busy to sit for an interview and the town meeting would be my only chance to question them, I had planned to let the meeting play itself out without interference from me. But I became impatient with the tedious series of easily-parried, simple-minded gripes about why IABC’s International Executive Board doesn’t solicit chapters for ideas, and what they’re doing to attract more Hispanics to the association, and why don’t they hold the next World Conference in Barbados.
So I stood up and asked McCasland what she thought of IABC’s media/blogger relations policy and practices lately, and whether she planned to modify them in the future. McCasland told me she would deal with me and Ragan and other outside observers as long as we wrote stories she considered fair, and covered the good as well as the bad. She received applause for the sentiment. Then, Meyers all but snatched the microphone and angrily expressed his belief that because he led the association on a volunteer basis and put in “a lot of damn time,” he didn’t deserve personal criticism.
Here’s the whole exchange. (Note: Though I’d openly filmed much of the event, I held my recording Flip cam behind my back so as not to commit the social barbarism of asking my question and then pointing the camera in their face. In any case, I believe a recording or a video of the whole town hall will be made available online by IABC soon.)
Look, folks: I care about IABC to the extent that it’s a home for the souls of the generous and bright and warm and candid and curious people I’ve come to call communicators. People with whom I have had disputes over two decades, people who have had disputes with me. People whose roles as IABC insiders I have respected, and people who respect my longtime role as a knowledgeable reporter and commentator in times good and bad.
Now those people seem marginalized into a kind of emeritus status. “They could lose this thing in about 10 seconds,” I saw myself typing in an email to one of several longtime IABCers who stayed away this year. “But I don’t think they know it.”
If the dozens of people who I’m thinking about lose their claim to IABC—and in an odd way I consider myself one of them, and some of them think of me the same way, even though I’ve never been a member—maybe we’re close enough to organize some other kind of tribe. But a small tribe we would be, and poorer for not having a great big annual spectacle to attend together, a vast global society to pollinate and be pollinated by. (This year’s conference was hella fun, and in many ways improved from shows in years past. The 1,400-ish attendees enjoyed a gorgeous party in the dry skating rink at Rockefeller Center, and a solid lineup of sessions and terrific keynote panels that I’ll discuss elsewhere.)
Meanwhile, if the twerps* want to run IABC their way, I guess there’s no stopping them from having it—and the peace that comes with not even being attractive enough to inspire a horny dog to hump.
Robin McCasland, don’t be that twerp.
How about let’s all get some rest, and let’s talk again when you’ve got a new executive director on board.
* A twerp, as defined by Kurt Vonnegut (who is also enjoying this chapter of the IABC story, with his pal Heller, from Hades), is one who shoves false teeth into his rear end and bites the buttons off of taxicab seats.
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.
So how does the grocery cashier expect me to have them?
I'd rather she reminded me, "Have a meaningful day."
That would give me something to think about.
Unless she said it all time, in which case I'd write a nasty blog post about that.
And so on.
It's just how I roll.
Next Tuesday at the IABC World Conference in New York, I'm debuting an all-new version of my Speechwriting Jam session. Past versions have been compelling collections of great speeches on loose themes. But this time, I'm using my samples to make a strange argument, for the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day to make: That in the age of the Internet, social media and YouTube, there is no longer any rational reason to hold an event as inefficient as a speech.
There is only, I'll say—and pause for a couple of beats—an irrational reason.
And then, if you're at the conference, come to my inefficient speech, to see (and, if I'm successful, to feel) how it actually works.
A couple of weeks ago I said here that many IABC members want to know and would find out what happened to their trade association this year. Only after they're satisfied with a reasonable accounting of what went wrong over the least year, I wrote, will they begin to listen to leaders talk about how they're going to make it right.
An entirely reasonable-sounding accounting has been written, by former communications VP Paige Wesley, one of the victims of IABC's big layoff in the fall.
Wesley, who I told after last year's conference that she was the best media relations pro IABC ever had, begins her story this way:
In everyone’s life there are days that define who we are, and who we will become. For me, Thursday, November 29, 2012 was one such day.
On that day the normally quiet atmosphere at the International Association of Business Communicator’s (IABC) San Francisco headquarters was downright silent. There were strangers scurrying around the office, and normally open doors were shut tight. By the end of the workday ten staff had lost their jobs and another five had been given three months’ notice.
This is my story surrounding the circumstances of the layoffs and events that may have impacted the eventual resignation of IABC’s executive director, Chris Sorek.
Of course Wesley is also bound by strict California laws surrounding discussion of personnel issues, so you finish her account knowing you haven't seen all the details. But you feel you have seen the shape of the thing, and in seeing it, you feel more empathy for almost everyone involved.
Assuming it isn't attacked or dismissed by the executive board, Wesley's piece is a valuable document: The story of a mistake, that the association can now go about trying to correct.