IABC Heritage Region Conference: Outstanding

Professional association conferences can be rather tedious affairs. They’re hard to program owing to the wide variety of experience of membership, the need for a balance of presenters between people who are selling something and those who are merely sharing, and no small disparity in skill as a public speaker. I know, because I’ve worked on several of them. One conference I’ve come to appreciate is the  International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) regional conference for members in the upper-right quadrant of the U.S. — the Heritage Region. When the Heritage conference came to Cleveland in 2009, I ran sponsorships, and in 2010 for Philadelphia, I was speakers co-chair and introduced a keynote speaker, and in 2011, I spoke in Detroit.

This year, Pittsburgh was the venue, and I sponsored the event and conducted a breakout session on employee engagement. It was an excellent conference, filled with first-rate programming at a fraction of the cost of other, larger ones.

I met some new people (which is the main goal for me at these things, along with having the chance to present), and heard some excellent communicators share interesting perspectives on our profession and its future. Here, briefly, a few of my observations:

Alison Davis got us started with an inspiring, if familiar, call to earn our stripes as strategists. Davis is a good speaker, and my only complaint is that the message is pretty basic stuff (see above on comment about the difficulty of programming when many levels are in the room).  But her methods were fun to hear, and she used Joan Jett and Bob Seger to open and close her talk.

Dina Wolfman Baker reorganized her communication department to align with an organizational refit, and started the process with primary research among 30 stakeholders, plus a time study to see where staff time was being spent. It’s rare, in my experience, to see so strategic a method for reorganization. The process too frequently is more political and financial — wider spans of control, certain number of reports by budget, etc.  Baker’s insights emerging from the research weren’t limited to structural questions, either — one factiod — a disconnect among leadership in expectations regarding willingness to accept advice from communicators and sharing strategy with them. The new structure brought more focus and expertise to bear on the topics that mattered most to the organization.

Robin McCasland runs internal communication for an IT services firm facing cultural change owing to acquisitions. She focused on the combined company’s shared distinctiveness and the appeal to a higher purpose to reinvigorate leadership enthusiasm and employee identification with the essentially new firm. But, she doesn’t ignore, either, the very real need to ramp up understanding of the industry and business among employees as the company looks to grow.

Erin Dick, whom I try never to miss on a dais, gave a terrific talk on a familiar topic – the ever increasing pace of change in society, including in the communication field. Dick is a high-energy, entertaining speaker who really gave a clinic on how to give a presentation. Great multimedia, enthusiasm and excitement (and some really cool, even scary new tech that’s already here, not just in the future.)

Jeff Hutson, who I got to introduce, had the unenviable position of kicking off the second conference day at 8 a.m. after the inevitable dinner out at the end of day one. Jeff is a research geek like me, and he shared some practical tools to help math-o-phobic communicators get over their fear and embrace the numbers — or at least, embrace someone who knows how to embrace the numbers. This notion informs a class I teach at Kent State University on measurement and ROI in communications — the goal isn’t to teach people to do measurement, it’s to help people do an RFP and evaluate the people who’ll do the work.

Betsy duWaldt, a colleague and Kent and former head of internal comms at First Energy Corp., is finishing up her Ph.D. at Duquesne, and she shared First Energy’s path to reinventing its employee communication — including a fascinating look at how the CEO won over a skeptical workforce. (Sorry Betsy, no photo!)

D. Mark Schumann, amid his trademark flowing mane of steel-grey hair and frequent self-deprecating quips, called on us to reinvent our profession and ourselves in our third keynote, then presided over a panel discussion where four breakout facilitators (including Moi) shared details and action steps that participants suggested to complete that reinvention.  It was a great close to two great days.

I may be largely “done” with IABC’s international conference, but the Heritage is a must for me.

I’m seeing a lot of IABC this fall — I’m speaking in mid-November at the IABC/PRIME Research conference in New York and talking employee communication measurement. Should be a great time — and another great, small conference from my longest-tenured professional association.

P.s. Why do I think IABC, PRSA, etc., are valuable, and what are my concerns and complaints about them? See this post on PR Conversations.

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