IABC seeks to leave controversy behind as world conference opens

Leaders emphasize the year’s reforms and changes, despite departure of controversial executive director.

Last year, the International Association of Business Communicators‘ annual world conference opened with hope for a fresh vision under its new executive director, Christopher Sorek.­

This year, the organization is seeking to move beyond the controversy left in the wake of his resignation.

The 15,000-member organization hopes its four-day event in New York City beginning Sunday, June 23, will put a close to year of turmoil and layoffs—and inform members about a new direction that volunteer leaders believe will strengthen the organization.

“It’s been an interesting year of change,” outgoing Chair Kerby Meyers told the members in a general session Sunday evening.

But he emphasized strategic changes that involved a revamp of IABC’s Gold Quill Awards and Accredited Business Communicator credential, more relevant content, and a move to digital publication.

The past year saw Sorek’s hiring, the layoff of half its 32 staffers, communications that many members have criticized as botched, and Sorek’s resignation less than a year into the job.

Aaron Heinrich, IABC’s director of communication, said the mood here has been mixed but that most members are excited about learning from the experts and mingling with colleagues.

“The biggest thing we want people to come away from this with is that for the most part this organization is on really solid ground from which we can continue to move forward,” Heinrich said. “There’s a lot more good here than there is negative, and we want to get people past that and start moving forward in a positive direction.”

Conference attendee Lynn Suderman says the discussions erupted because of the nature of IABC.

“They work for an organization of communicators, and they dropped the ball,” says Suderman, director of communications at Questrade in Toronto. “That’s why so many people are participating in the discussion—not only because they believe in the IABC, but also because they saw it as an object lesson.”

In preparing to speak, Kerby said he was planning to address the controversy. “I was really focused on saying: ‘There’s been a lot of change. There’s been a lot of hubbub. There’s been a lot of stuff,'” he told Ragan.com, “but I was sitting over there saying, ‘Wait a minute; we’ve gotten a lot done.'”

Incoming Chair Robin McCasland says the organization has a history of communicating ineffectively. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to that,” she said, adding, “You’re never going to see a period when we’re not communicating as quickly as we can and as effectively as we can with our members.”

The debate over Sorek’s tenure erupted anew just in time to stir discussion at the conference. In a blog post, Paige Wesley, IABC’s former vice president of marketing and communication, accused the departed leader of creating a “seriously toxic” work environment.

Sorek could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Wesley, who was ousted by Sorek, said the problems with his management style were evident as early as last year’s world conference. Sorek “was invited as a guest—not yet employed by IABC—and immediately started barking orders,” she wrote. “The shock and confusion of the staff were palpable and played havoc with their ability to focus on the multitude of conference tasks.”

The turmoil became more widely evident with layoffs last November. In her post, Wesley detailed how senior staff were called into his office one by one and “came out minus a job. In less than 30 minutes, half of IABC’s staff had been dismissed, with 10 staff members being given their notice as a group and two being dismissed by phone.”

The IT team was given three months’ notice, but was later asked to stay when it became clear the technical network would be at considerable risk without them, Wesley asserted.

Wesley’s post received a sympathetic hearing on IABC’s LinkedIn group. “That such a person could be hired and tolerated as IABC executive director is shameful,” said Roger D’Aprix, leader of D’Aprix & Co., adding, “Her post should be an object lesson for the selection committee that interviews the next candidate for the job.”

IABC will hold a town hall meeting on Tuesday to address criticism. Following the general meeting, the town hall is slated to begin around 5:15 p.m. EDT. Those interested in dialing in may do so after 5 p.m. EDT by phoning 1-877-724-3611, passcode: 4785686#. (It’s toll-free within the U.S. or Canada). IABC will also field Twitter questions at #IABCTH, and the session will be recorded.

IABC can take heart that many rank-and-file members arriving Sunday said the turmoil surrounding Sorek’s tenure wasn’t at the top of their concerns. A dozen members who spoke to Ragan.com said the controversy wasn’t foremost in their minds.

“I’m part of the mailing list, so I got the email saying that he’s leaving,” said Judy McGregor, a communications manager at Old Mutual South Africa in Cape Town. “It’s an association that I’m part of. I’m not really obsessed about who’s in charge and who does what.”

Samantha Colvin, senior relationship manager with the Calgary, Alberta-based ATB Financial bank, is trying to stay in touch with her employees from the annual IABC conference. Seventy-five thousand people have evacuated floods there, and water lapped at the 10th row of the city’s hockey arena. The company’s office and many branches were flooded, she said.

She’s here to focus on executive communications while staying in touch with colleagues back in Calgary. She was less concerned about the events of the past year at IABC’s San Francisco headquarters.

“Maybe it’s more of an American issue,” she said.

As IABC looks forward to the town hall meeting, Suderman, the Toronto communicator, says she doesn’t know whether it will make any difference, “because at this point, they probably rehearsed what they’re going to say and how to respond to the questions.”

McCasland, the incoming chair, has high hopes. Amid the debate on LinkedIn, she has messaged some critical members to explain the board’s thinking. These people appreciated being heard, she says. The town hall will similarly be an “opportunity for them to understand,” she says.

“They can hear the responses to the questions,” McCasland says. “They can ask more questions or walk away going, ‘OK, now I understand it; I didn’t understand it before.'”


Topics: PR


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