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.