Another IABC International Conference…

I recognize that if I’m not a speaker at the big IABC soiree, I’m probably not the target audience for it. I’m not surprised, therefore, that my first blush reaction to the Toronto gathering wasn’t particularly positive.  My goal for attending this year was to meet some new people and make contact with some who I haven’t seen in a while. I hope to eventually get some business from it, but really just need to expand the network.

The programming and format are nearly identical to my first International, in 1995, also in Toronto. That one was a revelation — I was just 4 years or so into the profession, and everything was new.  Every session offered fascinating insights or enhanced skills.  I met scores of people and hung out with many, enjoying my first trip to Toronto and my first extended business trip in several years.

In 1997, L.A. was a different experience. Many of the speakers were the same as two years earlier, and in 2002 at Chicago, there were just a few sessions that really caught my eye. So I took a vacation from the big show until this year.

Things that impressed me:

Erin Dick from Pratt & Whitney — a social media case study that wasn’t from a Silicon Valley firm… Her use of blogs, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to help support P&W’s client (the U.S.Government) on the selection of an engine for the Joint Strike Force fighter was off the charts — brilliant. And it had a fairly strong measurement component. I decided to Tweet the session instead of trying to take notes. The benefit was that I had a great summary, though my thumbs threatened to lock up from BlackBerry-itis…

William Amurgis from American Electric Power — Looking for use of social media in internal communications? Amurgis delivered. AEP’s blogs, discussion boards, employee-uploaded photos, etc., set a high standard of participation. The company’s intranet philosophy? Enhance employee productivity, reinforce corporate messages and provide a place to meet for all employees. Everything has to pass through that frame, or it doesn’t happen. And, rather than buy software solutions, AEP makes their own. Amurgis has a designer and a developer on his staff.

The UnConference — OK, it was a bit different than other UnConferences (usually low-or-no-cost, open to anyone; you had to buy the day (at least) for the IABC Conference to get in, and it wasn’t cheap) — but the method of operation was different and fun. There was no pre-set program, just a list of ideas posted on the TorontoTalks website (that a few people did discuss first), and three 5-minute “keynotes” — very informally delivered.  The three-hour session on Sunday afternoon was comprised of four 25-minute blocks of time with six possible topics (being held at six tables). We wrote on sticky notes our question or suggested topic, then stuck it on a flip chart in an empty time slot. The writer could lead the discussion, or someone else could.  I talked measurement (what a shock!) with seven other folks and it was fascinating. We didn’t solve the ROI question in full, nor did we get into other facets of communication, but it still was valuable and fun.

The thing is, the (nice) venue, formal structure and overwhelming size of the show made it hard to connect with people. Even the formal networking session (the big one held on the floor of the exhibit show) was just an hour long — not near enough time to connect. (I also didn’t attend Monday’s sessions — none particularly grabbed me. That might have inhibited my networking activities, so shame on me!)

The cost was pretty high for a new entrepreneur, not only in travel but in the conference fee. I’ll be considering very carefully before jumping on again soon. But, if I wind up as a speaker…

{FYI, I’m speaking in November at IABC’s Research and Measurement Conference in Seattle, as well as at the PRSA National conference in DC in October.  I’m also willing to come to chapter lunches, etc., and can make a deal for my PRSA/IABC fellow members!}


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12 Responses to “Another IABC International Conference…”

  1. Chuck Gose says:


    I get a bit frustrated at big shows like #iabc10 when it seems like it’s just recycled information. The best sessions are always the ones being led by the people doing the work – not the sessions led by those who are paid to tell you want to do.

    I understand that sponsors get to plant speakers in roles, but it would be better to have real practitioners telling their story.

  2. Sean says:

    Hi Chuck — thanks for your comment. I worked on this year’s Heritage Region Conference speaker’s committee, focusing on Keynotes. We didn’t engage in the sort of pay for play that some conference organizations do. If a prospective sponsor submits a proposal, it gets the same hearing as a non-sponsor (it’s a blind process with many people involved as evaluators).

    Last year for Heritage, we had a couple of prospective sponsors who would only sign for a speaker slot, so we bid them luck and said no. I think that’s the general policy of IABC, but it’s likely that rule gets stretched, eh?

    I chafe a bit at the thought that just because I’m a solo pr practitioner that I’m somehow “unreal,” though! The deal is that we who are consultants have to give away something good and avoid giving a commercial for our services. We should be heavy on cases (though our clients often prefer not to be ‘exposed’, sometimes stridently) — and talk about what actually happened, not what we think should happen…

    BTW, I missed you by moments on the exhibit floor — you tweeted off to Pearson just as I arrived!

    Cheers for now.

  3. Jen Frahm says:

    Hi Sean – thanks for expressing the more critical view of the conference. I think it’s important to show all views.

    You’ve hit on something that I think was missing and which made many of the session I attended lacking.

    “and talk about what actually happened, not what we think should happen…”

    My suggestion in the survey was to encourage all speakers to reveal ‘what surprised them about this case’, ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what they would do ‘differently again’. These question illicit the novel, the new, the surprising and stuff thats really helpful.

    If you are already doing a really good job in your chosen field, listening to others doing a really good job just becomes validation. And that is an expensive conference.

    So I will be going again, speaker or not, but I am going to go to sessions I wouldn’t have an interest in and learn something. I’m also going to ask those questions to the speakers.


  4. Sean says:

    Jen — thanks so much for weighing in.

    I think what I’m getting at is the possibility that the conference is really geared less for the senior practitioner and more for the mid-level and beginning practitioner when it comes to education.

    I readily admit that at this stage of my career (and given my objectives), I looked for sessions where I wanted to meet the presenter (almost uniformly corporate presenters) or where I thought the people in the room might be good people for me to meet. Hence, my observation that the networking was a little light is likely reflective of my desire to realize my main objectives.

    However, I’d be freer to explore the educational aspects if my main objectives were realized by having a speaker slot.

    Thanks again for dropping by!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Williams, Sean Williams. Sean Williams said: My quick (and a bit critical) take on #iabc10. Maybe I'm not the target audience? […]

  6. Mike Klein says:

    Excellent review… These line up well with my views–a generally ok but middle-market assembly of conventional wisdom coupled with an excellent-if hampered by the circumstances-unconference.

    Missing–any meaningful debate as well as much in the way of lessons learned.

    Question–will IABC raise its sights? We attack this at

    Good to meet you–clearly one of the highlights!


  7. Sean says:

    Mike – likewise, nice to meet you, though there really wasn’t enough time to have a full conversation! Ah, well.

    I wonder if, given the press of business and the continuing shrinkage of corporate communication staff, it’s just too risky to chance a significant change to the conference format… You have to have some “big names” to draw people, even as you need new faces and new ideas. It’s got to be a hard task — the Heritage Region work I’ve done amply demonstrates that!

    Cheers for now.

  8. Well put, Sean. Thanks for taking part in the UNconference! I hope we can keep doing it…it’s not only a great way to share information and experience, but as you said, it might be the best way to meet more folks. As far as I can tell, this conference is the best gathering of communicators the world over every year, so any way we can foster more interaction and sharing amongst everyone would be great, in my opinion.

    I got pretty decent value out of the sessions I attended, although most of those were outside my day-to-day responsibilities. I debated on that AEP presentation, you’re making me regret missing that.

    This year was my second conference (I went last year) and again, the most memorable and valuable part of the conference was meeting and talking with folks like yourself.

  9. Sean says:

    Hi Jeremy — thanks for taking the time to comment, and much appreciation for your kindness.

    My tax guy classifies conferences as “Education” rather than “Business Development.” I probably should take that to heart, though on my just-started-the-business-during-a-big-recession revenue, it was a big chunk of cash to lay out for educational purposes, especially given the caveats I outline in the post.

    I’m glad I went, mainly for the realization of meeting some “Twitter-Peeps” in person. I just wish there could have been less presentation and more interaction. No worries, I’ll be hard pressed to skip San Diego, though my LA family members will whinge and whine if I don’t make time to slog north (which would get in the way of meeting people at the conference!).

    Cheers — see you soon.

  10. Betsy Pasley says:

    Sean: good posting. As a World and region conference veteran, I think you know – like I do – that one unique value of the smaller conferences is the chance to meet and actually chat with presenters and other participants. I know when I go to World I’ll have less of that opportunity, but I always leave with new ideas even after 30 years in corporate life.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jen and Jeremy: let’s share more “real” stories and get more interaction. That’s what made the “unconference” so compelling. It’s ironic that Dialogue seemed to be a recurring theme – but only when delivered in a one-way, too-big-a-room-to-ask-a-question format!

  11. Sean says:

    Hi Betsy! Welcome, thanks so much for your comment. Classical irony is so entertaining, and you’ve certainly seized on a great example. I’m not sure, though, what IABC could do to change its format. The expectations are high, and so many people come because of the sessions/speakers. I’d like to see the UNConference expand from a Sunday afternoon to a full Saturday…

    Who knows!

    As I say, my objectives this year were different than in previous times… We’ll see what happens!

  12. […] Sean Williams offered suggestions and told of the things he was impressed by in his post, “Another IABC International Conference…” […]