IABC mired in controversy over layoffs

Communicators say the professional association was slow to explain fully why it was laying off half its staff. UPDATE.

The International Association of Business Communicators is a professional network that aims to be the gold standard for the industry.

The organization has found itself in a communications crisis since it announced it would lay off half of its 32 staffers by yearend, and then hire 11 newcomers, part of a change in strategy.

The shakeup came Nov. 29, five months after Christopher Sorek began his tenure as executive director of the organization, which has 14,000 members in 70 countries. Sorek previously worked as CEO of The Drinkaware Trust in the U.K.

Several critics said IABC initially didn’t make a platform available to discuss the restructuring, so members took to LinkedIn on Dec. 1 under the thread: “IABC fires most of its staff, and most VPs. Does not discuss it.”

It wasn’t until six days later that IABC began a LinkedIn thread of its own.

Now, weeks later, IABC announced it will address the restructuring in webinar Q&A’s at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. PST Dec. 19. The webinar invitation includes a mea culpa:

“Could we have done some things differently? Yes,” Board Chair Kerby Meyers wrote to members. “Should we have done some things better? Yes. Personally, I have learned a number of lessons. Our communications fell short and messages did not land well. We tried to be respectful, considerate and sensitive to the needs of our departed colleagues as well as those who continue to serve our members.”

The webinar announcement said that in the future, the IABC will offer free premium content for members, enriched mobile communication, and revamped accreditation and certification.

UPDATE: The webinar did little to calm members’ frustration.

Through a spokesman, Meyers and Sorek declined to comment to Ragan.com. The webinar invitation stated, however, “This difficult decision was not driven by financial issues.”

‘Information cascade’ seen as ineffective

IABC first announced the changes in a November email to the group’s leaders, says Angela Sinickas, an IABC fellow who received it. The association apparently wanted to use an “information cascade,” a tactic she says doesn’t work.

“That didn’t even work before email, when you did it face to face, when you were supposed to have leaders talking to their directors, who were talking to managers, who were talking to supervisors,” Sinickas says. “As soon as the first meeting happens, everyone hears about it. It used to be just a rumor; now, it’s social media.”

Enter LinkedIn. Members flooded the site with comments on Dec. 1 after a communicator’s comment—”IABC fires most of its staff, and most VPs. Does not discuss it”—sparked much discussion. Many expressed dismay over the way the communications were handled.

“It was just insane,” says Ina McGuinness of McGuinness Consulting. “Every time I opened up my email there were another 20 comments.”

Critics said IABC was slow to respond. Although it commented on the original thread, it lagged six days before posting its own thread: “IABC reorganization moving the Association forward.”

The communicator’s thread drew 155 comments; IABC’s garnered 30.

McGuinness says she was surprised by the IABC’s poor execution.

“I really do think this is about having a vision, and then having the tactics to follow up and support the vision,” she says. “That seems to be lacking in their approach or communications strategy.”

Where’s the executive director?

Some members are asking why Sorek has apparently made no comment about the restructuring.

“I wonder why the volunteer chair is set up as spokesperson for IABC rather than the paid executive director,” says Roger D’Aprix, an IABC fellow who is managing director of D’Aprix & Co. and a senior advisor to ROI Communication. “I don’t understand why he, from the beginning, wasn’t leading this effort.”

An IABC spokesman told Ragan.com in an email that Meyers, the board chair, has been the primary spokesperson for this announcement.

Some saw the IABC as slow off the mark in addressing member ire. In communications, “the faster you communicate, the better,” says Gerard Braud of Braud Communications.

“When people are laid off, it is an emotional situation,” Braud says. “It is highly unusual for the emotions to go to the customer base and not just remain inside the workplace.”

But Braud says he has been in thorny situations in which companies want to say more but face legal and internal restrictions on what they can say without violating confidentiality.

A group such as IABC feels increased pressure about communications than would another type of industry organization, Braud says.

“If it was the association of widget makers, the irony wouldn’t be that strong,” he says.

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Topics: PR


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