IABC international board draws praise, criticism in town hall

In a meeting at its world conference, the communicators’ organization addresses a year of controversy, urges volunteers to step forward, and receives a few plaudits.

An International Association of Business Communicators town hall meeting Tuesday in New York drew many businesslike questions about how to boost volunteering and diversity.

But a year of controversies also reverberated as members asked about layoffs that occurred last year and wanted to know how IABC will select a new leader following the abrupt departure of its executive director this month.

IABC called the town hall meeting following months of sharp criticism on its LinkedIn group and elsewhere. Just a year ago, the organization hired a new chief, Christopher Sorek, only to accept his resignation this month following a tumultuous tenure.

“For a lot of us it felt like a perfect storm, and I know it felt like that for you, as well,” the organization’s new chair, Robin McCasland, said at an annual meeting that preceded the town hall.

As if prepared to face a firing squad together, the international board lined up in front to field questions as a group. Yet if board members worried about the reception they’d receive, they found an often appreciative audience. Along with tense moments, members also applauded the volunteer board.

The public hubbub began months after Sorek’s arrival last June, although there were internal stresses before that, a former staffer has revealed. Sorek ousted half the staff, hired newcomers, and was accused of creating a “toxic culture” at IABC’s San Francisco headquarters.

Moving forward

“Whatever went wrong, that’s in the past now,” IABC Fellow Suzanne Salvo told the board. “But moving forward, what are we going to do differently this time around in our search to ensure that we don’t end up in the same boat in another six months?”

McCasland, who had just taken the gavel as the new chair, said the organization would appoint an interim director and create a broad, global panel to search for a new leader.

“But that’s what we did before,” Salvo replied. “What are we going to do different this time?”

“It worked fine before,” McCasland said. “The process hasn’t changed. The process is going to be the same.”

Cloreth Greene, chair of the U.S. Southern Region, wanted to know whether the dust had settled following the staff layoffs.

“I can say for myself it’s a bit disconcerting to send an email to someone, especially if you’ve spoken with them just a few hours before, and then there’s no response, and you follow up,” Greene said. “Or you see an email come back and say, ‘I’m no longer with IABC.'”

Outgoing Chair Kerby Meyers provided few further specifics in his reply to Greene.

“So, there’s been turnover in the staff, and we can’t—,” Meyers began, then went on: “As [for] personnel issues, we do have to figure things out. But it’s an issue we’re working on.”

In the both the meeting and the town hall, board members expressed pride in the structural changes initiated last year, ranging from credentialing and awards to updating an IT department that needed investment.

Questions via Twitter

The board heard questions in person, by Twitter, and by phone.

Along the way, the board garnered support. “Just a shout out to this amazing IABC board – you guys rock!” tweeted Gary Spondike, vice president of business development at Skidmore Studio in Detroit.

Shannon Frederick of IABC Tulsa said the organization isn’t using a lot of resources that are available at the chapter level. The Oklahoma group could work with others in IABC, she suggested.

“IABC Tulsa, the chapter of the year, has been booming for five years,” Frederick said. “No one has asked us how we’re doing it. … No one from international [IABC] has.”

Vice Chair Russell Grossman, who is from London, took umbrage, saying there needs to be a partnership among all parts of the organization.

“I actually hate references to ‘international,'” Grossman said. “I think it’s divisive, and I think it is pejorative. The association serves the chapters; the chapters are the center of the association.”

He added that the chapters must raise their hands so that the organization knows they are willing to help out.

On Twitter, however, Frederick found support. St. Louis member Dora Smith wrote, “Agree with whoever just asked/commented about the divide b/w chapters and @IABC HQ. Very little contact b/w the two.”

David Murray, writer of the communications blog Writing Boots, asked McCasland how she would deal with outside press and bloggers. He noted the difficulty reporters have had in reaching IABC board members.

“There’s no time for interviews,” he said. “Nobody ever gets back to me. Nobody ever wants to talk to me on the phone.”

McCasland said she would welcome coverage but that IABC doesn’t get a lot of requests for press. But she said the coverage must be fair, reporting the good as well as the bad.

Meyers added tensely: “Don’t get personal. We’re volunteers. I put in a lot of damn time here. And to get really personal, I’m sorry, I get defensive, and I shut down.”

The comment drew applause.

Toronto member Russell Evans questioned the dues, asking for the rationale of money that stays local versus going to the headquarters. “IABC’s not cheap, but I don’t see what we’re paying for,” he said.

Board members sketched out how the budget is spent, and McCasland said the leadership would provide a breakdown of where money goes. Earlier, McCasland promised greater communication about the group, saying that each month it would explain an aspect of IABC business.

Glenda Hewitt of Sydney said her chapter often gets questions about value.

She said she has discovered that “the value is, ‘What you put in is what you get back.’ And the more you put in to the IABC, the more you get back.”



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