What’s the matter with IABC?

It’s happened to a lot of organizations.  Business shifting under their feet, departure of key exec, search for new leader, struggle to change without losing customer base, new leader leaves sooner than expected after difficult tenure.

It shouldn’t, however, happen to a membership organization comprised of professional communicators.

The drama over Chris Sorek’s departure after less than a year at the helm of the International Association of Business Communicators has to have been avoidable.  We counsel our execs and clients about this. Books are written, conference presentations, academic papers all say the same thing: “Tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all,” according to Bruce Hennes of Hennes/Paynter, the crisis management firm based in Cleveland.

The tragicomic saga opens when Sorek takes over, succeeding Julie Freeman.  Julie, who held the post for 10 years, communicated quite effectively, in my book. She was visible, involved, supportive. Sorek was a little invisible, a little remote, seemingly more comfortable out of the spotlight in his 11 months. That’s fine; not every leader is an ENFP.

But as the changes began, including massive staff layoffs and restructuring, I believe the numbers were 15 of the 32 employees, Sorek still hung in the background. The always excellent David Murray had a good summary and analysis, as did Ragan.com, all without a word from the executive director.  In corporate life, we often call that, “insulating the CEO” from delivering bad news. But hey, this ain’t a corporation, its our bloody (and bloodied) association.

On IABC’s web feature, “IABC in the news” Sorek hasn’t been present since an interview in August 2012.  Freeman often took to the IABC Cafe, the blog platform. Sorek never did.

Who was that masked man?

Meanwhile, IABC’s LinkedIn group is full of members and nonmembers asking about what was happening at our association (I’ve been a member near continuously since, well, a long time ago). The International Executive Board (IEB), a volunteer leadership group, did its best to fill the void, but the paid head of our association was strangely reticent, leaving the spokes duties to our IEB chair.

I am wondering whether I need IABC anymore. I’m active in other groups — PRSA’s Employee Communication Section for one, the Institute for PR Commission on Research, Measurement and Evaluation, for another, and have a strong community of outreach via social media.  Add to that the desire to speak and write less for my communication family and more for senior execs in industries that might need my professional help, and we’re coming to an inflection point.

In the end, I’ve opted to stay in IABC, at least for 2013. I have a few personal frustrations — despite a long history of chapter leadership and good experiences with the Heritage Region Conference, the International has been a tough speaking nut to crack. As a small business guy, I need to make good decisions about how I spend my time and money.

This latest imbroglio, including a request from our IEB chair to “stick to the speaking points” was a real tale of the cobbler’s children. Seriously?  IABC tried to tell it first, but the technology didn’t cooperate. It didn’t tell it all because of privacy concerns (and a desire to avoid feeding voyeurism, according to one comment).  That made it seem like IABC wasn’t telling the truth — the failure to explain reasons behind decisions makes people believe they’re being deceived, as Joe Williams teaches.

Now, the search for an executive director begins all over again. The question is, who wants that job?  It better be someone who knows how to connect with membership from the very start, who will do a good job of listening to membership and who can exude confidence about the plans for the future.



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6 Responses to “What’s the matter with IABC?”

  1. Keith says:

    Great thoughts Sean. I appreciate the cobbler’s children analogy, but the board really needs to explain why they let Sorek stay hidden for so long. You’d think that as a communications organization they’d not select a director who was unable or unwilling to communicate. As for IABC’s communications team blaming the technology for the poor rollout….if the association’s members had tried to do that at their place of employment, they’d be joining Sorek in looking for a new position.

  2. Mike Klein says:

    I think the more immediate question is whether a credible ED candidate would want to work with a Board which not only has this approach to communication, but which has a view of IABC’s reality which might not align well with the opinion or a more detached professional. My suspicion is that this could have been a problem for Sorek.

  3. Sean says:

    Keith — thanks for the comment. Yes, the “dog ate my website” defense. Most credible. Yipes.

    Mike – it wouldn’t be the first time that an exec came on board, remade the team and decided it wasn’t going to work after all. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Keith Brooks says:

    Sean, I am glad you decided to stay with IABC.
    I feel as though IABC is experiencing a bit of a roller coaster ride like any family might from time to time. There have been and likely will be more disappointments. We all joined IABC for our own reasons and if they are still valid, I would hope we could stay to help build a better organization that serves its members.
    We can hope, can’t we?

  5. Judy Gombita says:

    Sean, I also was surprised at how little external profile Chris Sorek had…but one thing to consider is whether that was by HIS choice or the executive board’s directive.

    You would think that an association of communicators would understand and appreciate that in many ways the top dog in administration has to be the primary public face, rather than the one (occasionally two) term elected chair/president of the board.

    I know IABC “evolved” to that concept during Julie Freeman’s 10-year stewardship. But then it reverted with her replacement.

    The most important role of any board of directors is to ensure the correct/best CEO is hired for the role.

    Perhaps the board itself made the decision to have a background “executive director” (or whatever name the title was changed to) and revert to the older version of having the chair/president be in the spotlight. I’ve experienced this in a work situation, where the CEO had the understanding of being hired for a very specific role that did NOT include external communication (particularly with the media).

    This proved challenging on many levels.

    I hope IABC can recover and get its mojo and licence to operate back, as there really aren’t any other viable alternatives in North America for associations that focus (primarily) on internal communications.

  6. Sean says:

    @Keith thanks for the comment. The “stay and build” is a compelling argument. In fact, it’s one reason why we stayed in NE Ohio and continue to try and help it become the best it can be. The IABC imbroglio is not as complex or as scale intensive — but it’s still an issue of understanding stakeholders and forging a new frontier that fulfills aspirations.

    @Judy – we definitely return to the concept of transparency — the expectations are different now than 10 years ago, and understanding reasons behind decisions is crucial to generating identification, contributions and volunteerism.

    You are right that IABC seems more interested in employee comms than other groups = but Melcrum has certainly created a for-profit model to represent for internal in a way that no one else has since Ragan’s exit… PRSA has the employee comms section (which I’ll lead next year), but that’s just around 400 members out of 20,000. One fear during the many rumors of IABC/PRSA merger was that internal comms would lose out, and I think that may be right.

    The recovery from this kerfuffle will be interesting to watch. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.