For the last several weeks, leaders and numerous members of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) have found themselves in a crisis. Ostensibly, the crisis stems from the mishandled release of plans to overhaul IABC’s cherished but struggling accreditation program and relegate IABC’s magazine from print to online publication, and from the weeks where IABC Chair Kerby Myers and President Chris Sorek declined to address objections to these and other related proposals.
But the roots of the crisis run deeper. They stem from a business model that aims to be a communicator’s one-stop shop, providing a disparate range of goods and services, ranging from continuing education to professional companionship to certification of one’s competencies to compiling best practices to claiming a role as the industry’s “official” champion.
Such self-described “multifacetedness” (or inability to focus) is central to the IABC’s mission:
(a) Provide lifelong learning opportunities that give IABC members the tools and information they need to be the best in their chosen disciplines.
(b) Share among our membership best global communication practices, ideas, and experiences that will enable the development of highly ethical and effective performance standards for our profession.
(c) Shape the future of the profession through ground-breaking research.
(d) Champion the communication profession to business leaders.
(e) Unite the communication profession worldwide in one diverse, multifaceted organization under the banner of the International Association of Business Communicators.
It’s hard to say that anything IABC currently does is truly best-in-class (with the possible exception of the activities of its most dynamic chapters), much less make one view it as the world’s sole communication association of any importance.
IABC hosts the biggest international communications conference. But in a world where networked communication is becoming increasingly central to commerce and social change, IABC’s World Conference is hardly on a trajectory to become the industry’s Davos or South by Southwest-an event considered indispensable for contacts as well as content.
Its magazine, “Communication World,” is more likely to be missed by inactive IABC members for whom it was their only tangible perk, than by serious practitioners who found it crucial reading. And despite the devotion of the Accredited Business Communicators, the moves to eviscerate the accreditation programme reflect its inability to catch fire as the industry’s core professional credential.
Moreover, many things that IABC claims to be in its mission are being run to generate revenue instead of impact.
IABC’s research arm has generated some research that members could potentially use to persuade recalcitrant bosses and clients of the value of our work. Rather than make the research available to us, IABC has insisted on selling that research instead of using it to spearhead a viable advocacy effort.
In so doing, IABC has doubled down on using its chapter network as its growth engine instead of industry advocacy, and holding to an expensive dues structure that offers fairly limited value to members who don’t choose to participate in chapter activities or lack a viable local chapter.
Time for a new model
According to IABC, it loses and replaces 25 percent of its members annually.
My conclusion: IABC needs a radical restructuring, and one that rejects the all-encompassing grandiosity of the current mission statement. A point of departure for a serious discussion would be the following:
1. Repeal the mission statement.
2. Split IABC into three entities:
a. Global Chapter Network. Liberate the chapter network to grow in the places where there is sufficient energy and resources. Expand the Leadership Institute as a gathering place for participants to focus on chapters and share chapter development best practices. Set dues appropriately and let chapters keep the bulk of their dues.
b. Conferences and events. Spin off, or sell, the IABC Conference in a way that drives the conference toward becoming the profession’s central annual event (rather than just IABC’s central annual event). Rethink the entire proposition and come back with something compelling. Take a year off if need be.
c. Advocacy, content and knowledge. Unleash a movement that shares compelling research and best practices, facilitates awareness of the importance of effective communication, and connects committed communicators regardless of where they live. This movement, taking advantage of public social platforms and using IABC’s library and current membership base, could be where the real potential for growth lives. It could also provide a number of types of certification and accreditation, both for professional competence and for competence as an industry advocate.
This approach would be radically different. It would create two distinct, if potentially related membership entities, and involve the sale or spin-off of a core asset. And each entity, once formed, would need to be self-supporting, which could lead to additional changes. But IABC members need to recognize that changing their menu of offerings and keeping the current model isn’t enough. Time for a new mission, time for a new model.
Mike Klein is a Copenhagen-based practitioner and author of “From Lincoln to LinkedIn, the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication.” A former member of four IABC chapter boards in Europe, Klein is also co-founder of the CommScrum LinkedIn Group. He is currently deciding whether to renew his IABC Membership.