Freeman recalls her decade as IABC president

After more than 10 years as president of the International Association of Business Communicators, Julie Freeman will step down at the end of 2011.

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When Julie Freeman took over as president of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in 2001, the association was deeply in debt and in danger of collapsing.

“There was grave fear that the association would go out of existence,” Freeman says.

A decade later, IABC is still standing, but its president is taking her leave. Freeman announced last week that she’ll be stepping down at the end of 2011 for “personal projects.” In an interview with, Freeman explained that she wants to be more involved in her children’s lives, and that she has on eye on doing some altruistic work.

Freeman has had her share of detractors during her tenure, but she said she’s proud of her accomplishments at IABC’s helm.

Biggest achievements

“Julie Freeman joined as IABC president when the association was insolvent and facing the worst financial crisis an association can face,” says Allan Jenkins, a business communicator and blogger. “She was instrumental in pulling IABC from the brink, by cutting costs and putting financial controls in place.”

IABC retired its debt in 2006, two years ahead of schedule. Freeman says that’s certainly one of her biggest achievements—she credits the IABC staff for making the debt elimination happen—but not the only one of note.

For instance, the IABC website was “a mess” when Freeman came on. It looked like it was “designed by committee,” Freeman says. Since then the website has made “great strides,” she says, and it’s set to be updated again this year.

Freeman says she’s also proud of IABC’s branding effort of a few years ago, which led to the slogan “Be heard,” and program innovations such as the online CW Bulletin newsletter. Other online initiatives that Freeman touts include the eXchange blogging platform and the Cafe2Go podcast.

D. Mark Schumann, a member of IABC since 1978, cited Freeman’s commitment to “sound operations,” welcoming global members and chapters, and volunteer outreach.

Charles Pizzo, former IABC international chair, says Freeman helped further IABC’s goal to publish more content and hold more seminars. “Critics had said that IABC ran like a club,” he says. “Julie Freeman helped shape it into a modern business enterprise for the Internet era.”

Membership and chapters

Late in Freeman’s tenure as president, some concerns about the health of local chapters emerged in the blogosphere. Freeman says the international organization tries “to work with chapters that are lagging,” but “the reality is the chapters are run by volunteers,” which is both a strength and a challenge.

“We cannot replace the colleague to colleague connections that compel communications professionals to join and get involved in IABC’s programs,” she said in an online comment.

IABC also had to deal with the loss of hundreds of members in 2009 and 2010. Membership peaked in 2008 with about 16,000 people, Freeman says. But the economic downturn that started that year led to job losses, and people started dropping their memberships.

Luckily, Freeman says, the bleeding has stopped. Membership stabilized this year, she says.

What’s next?

Freeman likely won’t have much involvement in her successor’s selection, she says, but she does have an intimate knowledge of the challenges the next IABC president will face. He or she will have to keep up with an array of different constituencies, Freeman says, all of which have different needs. Plus, he or she must be mindful of finances as global economic difficulties persist.

Another big challenge that Schumann cites is one that’s been on the table for years: Staying relevant.

“So many of the tools that we use are available on the mass market,” Schumann says. “If you only define what we do according to the tools, anybody could do what we do. How do you educate people who have these tools in their hand about the extra degree of judgment that a professional communicator brings?”

Communicators and IABC have to figure out a way to be “ageless,” he says.

The IABC’s International Executive Board is in the process of convening a search committee to find the next president by the end of the year, says chairwoman Shelley Bird. “While we will be working out the process details with the search committee, I would expect to have staff involvement and to provide periodic updates to members,” she says. “We—the board, Julie and staff—are all committed to a smooth transition.”

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