IABC caught in communications controversy as Sorek leaves

Members criticize the organization’s messaging as the executive director resigns. IABC blames ‘a perfect storm of technology issues’ for a lag in getting the word out.

As the International Association of Business Communicators members prepare to gather for its world conference in New York this month, the organization is asking them to bring a passion for new ideas and the latest trends.

But the organization could face a different kind of passion—sharp questions and heated debate—following the resignation of Executive Director Christopher Sorek.

IABC International Chair Kerby Meyers announced Sorek’s resignation Tuesday, following months of controversy that began last fall when IABC laid off half its 32 staffers and hired 11 newcomers.

The resignation stirred up yet another row on LinkedIn and Twitter about IABC’s communications. Some members said the announcement—which was first reported externally on the Writing Boots communications blog rather than on IABC’s website—was sloppily handled.

Several members asked why the organization used email to notify leaders and didn’t post the news on its website or Twitter until Wednesday.

‘No excuse’

“There is simply no excuse for not being able to use its own website to post such an announcement,” Robert Holland, a Virginia communications consultant, wrote in a blog post.

IABC’s planned rollout of the news—first emailing members and then quickly posting on the website and on social media Tuesday—was thwarted by “a perfect storm of technology issues,” Communications Director Aaron Heinrich told Ragan.com.

IABC’s email system had database issues, and Web glitches prevented IABC from posting the press release until Wednesday, instead of Tuesday, as it had planned.

“I think anybody out there, whether they’d like to admit it or not, has been in a situation where right when you need technology, it typically fails you most,” Heinrich said. “Unfortunately, that was the case.”

Responses to the resignation

Justyna Piesiewicz, a Polish IABC member, told Ragan.com she was sorry to see Sorek go.

“It is a great shame, as everything looked as if IABC, together with Chris, would go in the right direction,” Piesiewicz said in an email.

She called for hiring someone with innovative ideas “not only on how IABC can be stronger in USA or Canada, but worldwide.”

On LinkedIn, Lyn Brown, a Vancouver marketing VP, wrote: “Members, whether long-timers like me or digital millennials, will be looking for and deserve more than talk points on this leadership change and quickly. IABC embraces social media, yet it appears the desire to control a message is a norm that still prevails. Why is that?”

Steve Lubetkin of Lubetkin Global Communications, suggested that IABC say, “Folks, we haven’t done a very good job communicating with you about either our vision for the organization or about the missteps we’ve made. Let us tell you what we’re doing to try to fix that…”

Claire Watson, IABC’s external relations team lead consultant, defended the organization on LinkedIn. She said it is good practice to share important information with the leadership team before notifying the membership.

“I hope that you clearly understand there are reasons that these messages are shared in advance with leaders due to privacy considerations,” Watson wrote. “And as is the case with any organization, we expect that our leadership team respects the trust in which this information is provided.”

A rough year

Although IABC didn’t specify its reasons for the resignation, the organization has been roiled by controversy since the layoffs. In a Ragan online survey reported last month, only 21 percent self-identified IABC members felt Sorek was effectively communicating his new vision for the association, while 41 percent said “no.”

Sorek did not respond to a Ragan.com request for comment Wednesday. He came with a strong communications background, starting at IABC in July after serving as chief executive at The Drinkaware Trust, a group that promotes responsible drinking and seeks to change the national drinking culture in the U.K.

He holds a master’s degree in international marketing and communications and has worked on public information and humanitarian issues abroad, IABC announced when he was hired. His career began as a journalist at newspapers and magazines in the U.S.

Some participants in LinkedIn forums suggested that the IABC board shares responsibility for recent problems.

“While I’ve been disappointed with the lack of leadership that Chris showed, we need to place part of the blame on the International Executive Board, which hired him and approved of the decisions he made, how they were communicated, etc.,” wrote Sue Kraus, president of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area marketing and communications firm.

Marcus Ferrar, past president of IABC Switzerland, called the organization “a mess at the top. In my experience in a corporation and as a consultant, when something fundamentally goes wrong, no amount of skilled communication can make it look good, or even acceptable.”

Others, however, were saying, “Enough.”

“Let’s stop the unproductive internal posturing, squawking, attacking, defending, and spin,” wrote Ontario communication coach Sue Johnston. “Let’s start looking outward, to members and chapters and their needs.”

IABC is discussing ways to open dialogue with its members at the upcoming conference, Heinrich said.

“A couple of people have even suggested in private emails that there might be some kind of a town hall, either before world conference or at the world conference,” said Heinrich, who adds that IABC is considering those options.



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