Commscrum and “Free Associations”—A Conversation

In this posting, the men and the woman of CommScrum discuss their short history, their commitment to free discussion, and the reactions they have received from unexpected places…with real-time conversation from the ethers of Skypechat:

Mike: Here’s how I’d like to start:  So, we’re into our fourth month of CommScrum–where we promised to break some taboos and challenge conventional wisdom–how do we think we’re doing?

Lindsay:  I think we’ve produced some good stuff and had some fun doing it.  The format’s been easy and the interaction we get is great so I can see this going for a while.

Kevin:  I like that we have brought out some sacred cows and if not slaughtered them then at least grilled and seasoned them a bit.  But we could still be more challenging.  I don’t want to become too polite or we’ll turn into what we are trying to distance ourselves from.

Dan: We have established a core of engaged folk (Sean Trainor, Sean Williams, Debbie Hinton et al) on both sides of the pond who like what we have to say, and are happy to chime in on a regular basis. Now its a question of how we widen the net further, in my book.

Mike: To be fair, we’ve clearly drawn blood a bit though, which I think we should acknowledge ourselves for.  We have one core principle guiding us, which a belief that there is nothing or no one in the communication world whom we can’t challenge, so long as we challenge on substantive grounds.

Kevin: And I don’t think drawing blood is an objective in itself.  It’s just an outcome of focusing on things that need to change in our profession if we are to remain relevant and innovative.

Mike:  One thing we’ve identified that’s crucial—is that there seems to be all-pervasive element of our profession’s culture that’s holding us back–a belief not only in hierarchy for its own sake, but that those in hierarchies hold their positions by right, making it wrong, impolite and even treacherous to challenge them publicly.

Kevin: Indeed.  We are at a sort of crossroads in terms of professionalism and how we associate – with an unprecedented range of options available to us. In the UK alone we have CIPD, CIPR, CiB, as well as EACD and IABC internationally.  As our profession has specialised, so has it fragmented.  It’s actually becoming hard to decide where to commit your time and energy in terms of best practices, next practices, networking and so on.

Mike:  Even though Commscrum is in its infancy, I think we have carved out a place in this fragmented world where comms pros who think the industry needs an ideological shakeup can connect with like-minded pros.

Kevin: Agree.  I’m getting lots of positive feedback that CommScrum is a place to have open conversations, rather than polite inwardly-focused chats behind closed doors.  I have had the opposite experience from IABC however and sort of drifted away – partly because of work pressures but because I felt it had become insular.

Lindsay:  Lets not forget that the IABC is a resource that offers a lot more where there is a critical mass of local and regional members that can float beneficial events and offer great networking opportunities. – i.e. North America.  Over there, it’s basically a big club for communicators complete with staff, accreditation and annual conferences – take it or leave it.

Dan:  Where I see myself getting value from any one of these sources is in uncovering alternative perspectives that encourage me to think differently, though. I certainly don’t get that from IABC these days.  In fact, I’ve encountered the opposite, because of the views we have expressed about IABC on Commscrum before.

Mike:  Are you talking about the email you received from a regional IABC officer expressing dissatisfaction with previous mentions of IABC in Commscrum postings?

Dan:  Yep – I’m headed out to Saudi next week for a 9-month contract, and I’d asked him if he knew anyone out there – a pretty simple and innocent request. Not only did he make it very clear he was unimpressed with my “recently expressed views”, he said he’d only help me network with IABC members in the Middle East if I renewed my membership. He even said – and I quote – “hey, nothing’s free these days.” Unbelievable!

Kevin: Wow. Yeah … I think sometimes people forget they are volunteers on these “boards.”  I was one of them!  I mean, it’s not like the elections are ever opposed and people are clamouring for roles.  Quite the opposite in my experience.

Mike:  But ironically, IABC’s own “Code of Ethics” calls for professional communicators to understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas, and to act accordingly.

Lindsay:   No denying that.  We Commscrummers – and anyone else who wants to share their professional views should be able to do that without reprimand.  I like being part of Commscrum because it stands for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and we don’t pretend to always be right.  We float ideas so our readers can shoot ’em down.

Dan: It’s a difference between an “instructional/right answer” focus (IABC) and a “thought leadership/chew on this” focus (Commscrum)

Mike:  IABC doesn’t have a monopoly on ‘right answers’, and I’m afraid it is missing the boat on the biggest issues facing us all right now.  IABC has some massive choices to make as we move into the social communication era–where democracy will confront hierarchy like never before, internally, in the industry, and in the business and organizational worlds as a whole.  To be sure, IABC fills a great social role in North America where communicators are dispersed, but it’s not needed for that in Europe. Germany in particular is getting along fine without any IABC involvement whatsoever.

Kevin: To be fair, I think IABC Chair Mark Schumann is spiritually “one of us” – he gets all this.  His challenge, and his successor’s, will be overcoming IABC’s propensities toward introspection and inertia.  And you can’t generally overcome inertia without some disruption.  There’s the rub. The thinking that got us here is not the thinking that will get us out of here.

Mike: What I see–IABC has great members–everywhere, Europe, NA, Asia.  It has some smart leaders, some real lions (like my buddy Ned Lundquist in particular), and does some good stuff.  It needs to keep doing the good stuff that informs and strengthens us as practitioners.

Lindsay: Absolutely.  Let’s keep things in perspective.  Some people get a lot out of it – but looking at it another way, the more introspective IABC becomes, the more people will seek information and truth from other sources – like Commscrum.  We’re all players in this evolution.

Kevin:  Let’s go to another example though.  IABC flew Mark Schumann over to Europe talk about employer brands.  That’s great, but, um, we happen to have some employer brand experts in Europe, thank you very much.  And as good as Mark is, there’s no blue water between him and say Simon Barrow.  Why didn’t they invite Simon? Certainly his perspective and experience is more relevant to a European audience.  Even I did employer branding for Coca-Cola and BP.  We aren’t exactly lightweights over here.  But I “left the IABC flock”, so it seems am persona non grata.  And my employer doesn’t sponsor IABC either. Yet my practice is officially launching in India next month, three offices of employee communications pros, then China.  And I don’t see IABC there at all.  It’s a real problem.

Lindsay:  What do you mean?  It’s a problem that they haven’t grown to cover the entire planet?  They have 14,000 members…

Kevin: But that’s mathematical – 50 states plus say an equivalent 5 in Canada, event with 100 people per region you hit 5,500 pretty quickly. The you get some large densities et voila.  It’s a problem that they claim “international” yet 90% of the members are on one continent.  Many of them presenting on cross-cultural, international communication issues when in truth their experience is working within a North American MNC.  As a long-term expat I have real problems with that.  It’s like being named the “World Champions” in American Football…

Dan: And emerging markets can, and do, leapfrog a lot of the incremental-competence-improving stuff that holds back the profession.

Kevin: I think we can’t over-emphasise this issue.  The equivalent is people in India and China who have gone from no phone to iPhone – never had a land line or a cruddy old brick.  That is the shift we are looking at.  Social media isn’t a channel; not something you learn about at a conference; you just do it.

Mike: Or, in Germany’s case, going from “newsletters and posters” to white-hot social media without getting mired in “employee engagement.”

Kevin: Precisely.

Mike: Nevertheless, IABC (and certainly its loyal members) don’t want to find themselves on the losing side.  Competent, confident ideological neutrality—that’s where IABC needs to position itself if it’s to thrive in the new environment.

Kevin: Is there a role for the “professional communicator” in 5 years time?  Assuming so, how should we organize ourselves?

Mike: That raises a further question–is IABC worth reshaping, or does it need replacing?  For example, in terms of industry infrastructure,  the IC group in Germany, IK_Community has 1000 members, no dues, and is totally organized through social media.  Melcrum and Ragan have followings in the tens of thousands for online and offline offerings alike.

Dan: As for ideological content, where we fit into the business picture is grounds for lots of discussions—for example, the words ‘brand’, ‘communication’, and ‘business’ put in front of the word ‘strategy’ are actually the same thing.

Kevin:  Agree, and I won’t bang on about multispecialism again here.  Another question – does IABC become a market shaper or a market maker?  I suspect the latter or fade into irrelevance.  I mean CIPR and CIPD are already making pretty strong inroads in the UK as well.  But IABC isn’t going to fade, it has such a strong North American footprint.  And again it has so much that is positive about it.  It just frustrates me, I guess… in my heart I feel it could be dominant if it could only shift its gaze from its own navel…

Mike: Maybe there’s a need for a “matrix” approach—we keep the “associations” as support infrastructure (skills training, accreditation, access to other members etc.), but the thought and commercial leadership moves to “movements” and “tribes” of like minds,  and small networks–perhaps even acting and competing as virtual firms.

Not fragmentation, tribalisation!

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49 thoughts on “Commscrum and “Free Associations”—A Conversation

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Williams, Mike Klein- and Mike Klein-, Mike Klein-. Mike Klein- said: CommScrum: Standing up for Free Associations, Challenging Status Quo: […]

  2. Yossi Mandel says:

    I entered internal comms 2 years ago, coming from working communications (among other duties) for 10 years in non-profit. I took a look at the organizations and information available, and did not see the value in joining any. I receive my information and shape my views through David Murray and Steve Crescenzo and the many others they have online discussions with and link to. The iabc and melcrum material doesn’t appeal to me, and I get ragan’s free e-newsletters (with too much rehashed and recycled material, but hey, it’s free).

    Once the discussion descends to tactics, I find it hard to see the value. Organizations and companies are vastly different from each other, and I need to apply here (B&H Photo) the communications needs and visions of the company, not tactics of other companies. It has to fit the makeup of the people in the company, and the culture top management and front line employees want to have.

    We are both advisers and implementers. We are the wise men of the company. That is both sword and crutch – we are aloof from managing the activities that bring in the cash or the beneficiaries, and that hampers us, but we also bring a fresh perspective to the people doing that work and tired out by that work. I don’t see a need for a seat at the table, I want to be able to whisper in the ear of power and step by step bring little or big changes that make the company a better place to work. Everyone we work with is under a tremendous amount of pressure to show results, and our communication should make it easier for them to do so, not add to their pressure.

  3. Brigit Law says:

    Interesting to read your views about the IABC. I am very interested to follow the development of CommScrum.

    For some reason, and I do not know what it is, I do not seem to get connected to the IABC (beside membership). I have a very good experience with Melcrum in London and online, but miss face-to-face networking moments from them in Brussels. I thought the IABC could fill this gap, but am not so sure now. Although I have met some good people, as a community the IABC has not inspired nor exited me so far.


    • commscrum says:

      Regarding the Belgium chapter (full disclosure–I serve as Membership VP): actually has a fairly full calendar, but unlike in other locales, has a relatively small internal comms community, and covers a broad range of disciplines unusual among European chapters. What that means is a fairly diffuse agenda–lots of stuff, but perhaps less of interest.

      Would love to talk off line about possibilities in the Benelux.

      Mike Klein–The Intersection

  4. Adam Hibbert says:

    Is it me, or is there a risk of navel-gazing ourselves, here, as we poke those navel-gazers in the eye? So, OK, every new generation needs to poke someone in the eye to prove that they’re all growed up and mean something new. But couldn’t we leave the mid-life identity crisis to those flabbier players and just get on with proving our mettle in the sport itself?

    BTW, when I want professional development, I try managing toddlers for a weekend, or going to a lecture on bee-keeping, or suchlike. Enriches my perspective way more than sitting on my bum listening to an IC back-pat-a-thon.

    • Mike Klein says:

      @adam: “Proving our mettle in the sport itself?” In my case, there’s the small matter of getting my contract picked up, and demonstrating which positions I’m particularly good at.



    • kevinkeohane says:

      I think part of the point is a lot of people out there who have indeed “proven their mettle” and doing so every day felling like they want some sort of improved association / network? I mean we are human beings who happen to be working in communications. I’m fascinated by what gets people out of bed in the morning. So that’s the angle guess I take…

      And hey a little navel-gazing is OK. It’s when it turns into obsessive behaviour that the neighbours start to get nervous…

  5. Mike Klein says:

    In the spirit of “free association”, allow me to move this onto a larger perspective, with the help of Martin Luther King:

    “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

  6. Since this post started with a discussion of how well Commscrum is doing, I’d like to say that I think it’s been great so far.

    I love the 4+-views format [can you tell?].

    I think where this blog really shines for me is when you explore issues and opportunities “outside the box” and beyond the traditionally quite narrow view of what we do. What’s the profession shaping into? What are the implications of economic, social and technical change for the profession? What does it mean to be strategic? And how do we get there? How do we make it easier for the institutions we all work for to achieve the results they are after [as per Yossi’s comment above]? …

    This free association rules! Thanks

    • Mark Schumann says:

      Hey, Kevin and all, great conversation filled with strong insight, important points, thought provoking comments. Take a minute to check my blog entry,, inspired by the conversation you lead. Thanks again. Your conversations are important! Mark

      • Kevin says:

        Thanks Mark – great blog posting and as always spot on in tone and content. I’d hate it if people thought this was just a bunch of hacks dissing IABC (since we seem to have a slight propensity towards discussing IABC, due to some shared experiences, that I must admit). I think, at least in my case, it’s sort of like that cousin who you secretly adore but are rude to in public to make a point.

        I think IABC (and other associations) play a vital and vibrant role in generating insight, ideas, content and community – don’t get me wrong. I think that, perhaps, the pyramid is upside down in terms of organisation structure, for the future we face – certainly in terms of resources. Like any multinational, there is always a pendulum that swings from strong core to strong satellites and back again with economic cycles – bloated self-perpetuating bureaucracies get swept away by decentralisation, and then in time decentralisation causes lack of consistency, continuity and efficiency so the pendulum swings back to the centre. Something to consider – greater resourcing at the local level, in an age of loose connection, local relevance and social media.

      • Mike Klein says:

        Hi Mark…

        In the spirit of crosspostingness—I am posting both here, and under your reply.

        First, before addressing the specific issues we’ve raised about IABC and about the professional networking and affiliation picture in our profession, I’d like to thank you for your willingness to welcome the conversation we’ve initiated—it sends a strong message to your fellow IABC leaders that public discussion of core issues is to be embraced rather than suppressed. That’s impressive, and much appreciated.

        That much being said, there remains a gap: between IABC’s embrace of open conversation, and its regeneration as an organization that effectively and positively supports and represents business communicators across geographies:

        1) From where I sit, I three potential roles for IABC, but only two which it has any competence for:

        One, it does well—as an accreditation body and award-recognition “academy” for the industry (although its criteria could use some updating).

        One, it does weakly and infrequently—as an advocate for the positive economic contributions of the business communication industry (as evidenced by its comparatively weak performance on this in the recent survey).

        And a third, which it does all-too-frequently—as an advocate for status quo thinking in the communication industry, often under the guise of “best practice”. I need only point you to the “editor’s comment” of the last issue of Communication World and its exhortation for more (top-down corporate) “inspiration” (to which I reply directly here:

        This advocacy of the status quo is not innocuous. At the moment, I’m attempting to generate my own business around identifying and leveraging lateral, social and networked communication opportunities in organizations. I don’t need an association that I represent and subsidize with my own money advocating yet more top down “inspiration” as the answer to all woes.

        2) Not only does IABC unduly exalt “best practice” and certain “best practitioners”, it also makes it hard for fresh practice and new thought leaders to get access to its audiences.

        IABC makes little effort to encourage and engage new sources for CW, for instance. As for Conference—having a requirement for 80%+ approval ratings from audiences of 75 or above effectively eliminates most if not all newly independent practitioners from eligibility for consideration for Conference slots—particularly as many conference providers have a preference for in-house practitioners to begin with, and most local IABC chapters lack the numbers to produce such audiences even to support their own members in getting on the Conference agenda.

        3) IABC’s structures are notoriously repellent to change—particularly given the fact that leaders are not directly elected by members through competitive balloting, but through a convoluted “nominating committee” process designed to ensure stability while spreading accountability and rewarding longevity.

        4) Mark cites the recent IABC Member Survey as an indication of IABC’s responsiveness. I admit that when I completed the survey, my response was “why are these the questions IABC is asking me?” Surveys are where one goes for validation not innovation, and indeed, in any member survey, one will identify a bell curve—where a big hunk of the middle is broadly satisfied (at least enough to keep paying dues), and there’s two tails of those drinking the kool aid and those wanting to pour it over someone’s head.

        Given that Mark speaks of a blueprint for IABC’s future, however, let me respond with a little sketch of my own:

        A) IABC recommits itself to its accreditation and certification role, while offering a wider variety of options for work submissions (“portfolios”) and test completion

        B) IABC and the Global Alliance join together to promote investment in business communication as a generator and protector of economic value and circulates relevant supporting data to members

        C) IABC modifies Conference criteria to ease entry for first-time presenters, and mandates that 10% of slots go to first-time presenters

        D) IABC includes an Open Space section in Conference to allow all comers to present and participate freely, and with separate admission for those not attending the rest of the event

        E) IABC shifts towards having open, competitive elections for the role of Chair, with the chair serving a two-year term.

        F) IABC refrains from editorializing in favor or against any technique, tool or approach not enumerated in the IABC code of ethics.

        Mark, your words are appreciated. Now, is IABC ready for some action?

        All the best,

        Mike Klein—The Intersection, Brussels

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks for the support Debbie. Sometimes rounding up the cows and deciding how far to lead them takes nerves of steel, strange as it may sound! Stay tuned. We’ll keep serving ’em up so you all can knock ’em down…

  7. ronnap says:

    This is my favourite Commscrum conversation so far. Nice insights (like Mike’s add about Germany following our conversation about this in Munich last month). Nice format too – I see a regular feature coming …

  8. I missed your earlier references to IABC and there doesn’t seem to be a search function on the blog, so my comments are based solely on this post and comments. I am struck by the parallels between some of the comments here and remarks I have heard levelled at other trade associations/professional societies that I have been involved with. To a large extent, I think you are looking at a tree and missing the forest.

    This post isn’t really about IABC — it’s about the economic model of associations. This model is built on solidarity and mutualisation, and has come under huge pressure from the rise of the internet, which has undermined some of the most basic functions of any association: providing access to a body of knowledge, creating networks and, in some cases, providing a privileged channel of access to relevant decision-makers.

    Associations are BY DEFINITION clubs that focus on their members. That’s their very raison d’être. The exact tasks may vary from one association to another but they are based on the pooling of resources to achieve things in common more efficiently and/or effectively than can be done individually. It’s rather like insurance: the model only works because a large group of people pitch in, including some who are taking less back out of the system than they put in. I think this spirit of solidarity is threatened by the contemporary trend towards instant gratification and individualism whereby everyone wants to get exactly the amount back out of the system as they put into it.

    The internet undermines a lot of the value of an association by making it possible to create networks elsewhere (often for free) and to access a wealth of information and opinions. So I do agree that associations need to think about how to modernise themselves, and it’s a real challenge, especially in countries where their scope for innovation is greatly limited by their legal status (associations in North America can engage in much more commercial activities than they can in France, for example).

    I wouldn’t be here commenting on this blog if I hadn’t met all of you through IABC, so how ironic is it to have that very link questioned!

    One point of clarification on Kevin’s remark above: IABC didn’t fly Mark Schumann over to talk about employee communications. It flew him over to interact with members across the EME region (a VERY laudable practice for a global chair to “manage by walking around” his non-North American membership), and local chapters chose the topic. In France, we had a really stimulating event about the future of our profession in 2020.

    Any association has to manage the balance between serving the members it has and the members it wants to attract. It’s true that 90% of IABC’s membership is currently in North America, but just a few years ago, that was 94%. The association is growing outside of North America and will continue to do so, I believe, because it serves a specific group of people: communicators who want to be linked to fellow practitioners in a global network. A national or local group is not sufficient for my professional needs. Just as one example, I do a lot of workk related to Africa, and IABC has allowed me to quickly expand my network across that continent, but it was up to me to leverage the tools provided by the association to make it happen.

    One last point, which is worthy of an entire separate discussion: in my experience, people are generally VERY bad at exploring and fully exploiting the benefits offered by their professional society or trade association. To come back to my Africa example: the association provided the tool, but I still had to invest the effort to extract the benefit. An association is an enabler, not a a lackey.

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Kirsten! Sorry for any factual inaccuracy – I based my comments on Mark’s blog posting about the event…

    • Kevin says:

      Hey Ii just saw the page below as I was looking for something else. IABC *DID* fly Mark out to talk about employer branding!!! (Just couldn’t let it go, could you Kevin)…

      Masterclass: rare opportunity!
      By UK Webmaster ⋅ February 25, 2010 ⋅ Post a comment
      We are delighted to announce that Mark Schumann ABC, the current chair of IABC’s International Board, is visiting London and will host a masterclass on internal branding.

      Mark is a principal and a communication consultant for Towers Watson. From 1998 to 2004, Mark served as the leader of the firm’s Global Communication business and has some 30 years of experience in the full range of employee, change and human resource communication. He recently co-authored Brand from the Inside and Brand for Talent with Libby Sartain. He is the winner of 13 Gold Quill Awards.

      Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear Mark speak in London. He will be sharing insights from his vast experience of internal branding and employee engagement, including:

      Why does communicating the brand internally matter?
      What works in terms of communicating the brand to employees?
      How do you measure the effectiveness of brand engagement?
      This event will take place on 3 March, 6-8pm, at the offices of KetchumPleon, Folgate Street E1.

  9. OK. With Mike’s latest input I feel I now really do have to weigh in on the IABC question especially because as a North American because I feel there may be an impression that we’re all over here loving the IABC.

    I’m a member and have been for years. I’ve not and never have been very involved. Why? Feeling that it’s a small, very closed club. I rarely read the publications or go to the website. Though I have to say that when I was teaching at McGill University I did use their short cases with my class to explore the internal communications implications. And yes, I’m rethinking my membership. Looking for some light.

    I’ve attended two international conferences. The first in LA was interesting and I did learn some things, networked [though mostly with people I already knew] and got to see and meet some of my favourites at the time – Bill Quirke, Roger d’Aprix, Shel Holtz. The second 4 years later in Toronto felt exactly the same. Same speakers, same topics, … except for a real time crisis – the SARS epidemic – and a clever decision of the organizers to change the agenda at the lat minute. The presentations and discussions on Crisis Management as it was happening were a great learning and generated a lot of interesting discussion at the sessions and beyond.

    Two attempts to get mentored for the ABC that were disastrous. I was matched with less experienced people both who had a very mechanistic view of communications and their roles as mentors. And the realization that the work that I do – generally longer term, change focused – doesn’t fit neatly into their measurement scheme.

    So, I have to say – and it might be the first time Mike – I wholeheartedly agree you’re your blueprint for the future of IABC [though I don’t really understand B, I agree with the spirit of it]. And, I would push the “10% of slots going to first-time [conference] presenters” to 25% and include speakers who are not professional communicators [see your earlier blog post around multidisciplinary approach] and who have something to share that we can learn from.

    Would I be right in guessing that none of you are going to the conference in Toronto in June this year?

    • Dan Gray says:

      Motion seconded!

      I agree wholeheartedly with Mike’s observations too – particularly with regard to the supposed safe harbour of best practice.

      For “best” read “established”, and that’s the inherent problem. Things are moving at such a pace these days that, by the time something becomes recognised as best practice, chances are it’s already lost a lot of its potency.

      Worse, it can sometimes be light years off the pace, as with the naming of IABC’s SR Link (as if the only problem with “CSR” was the “C” bit! See my blog post at

      Sure, it’s always helpful to draw on others’ experiences and what’s worked for them, but only as a starting point, and certainly not to the detriment of exploring other perspectives.

      That’s why I love your earlier comment, Debbie, on the “outside the box” stuff. From my perspective, we couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement, so thanks!

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Thanks, Debbie. Nice to know we aren’t off our collective rockers at CommScrum Global Headquarters. Like the upping the ante to 25%! K

  10. Mike — I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of change and bringing in fresh ideas. However, I do not endorse all of your suggestions on a blanket basis. For example, I don’t think that contested elections is the panacea you think it is. As a matter of fact, in a global organization covering many cultures, it would probably mean even less diversity on the international board because there are cultures where losing such an election would represent a total loss of face. The current process, while imperfect, does provide an opportunity to try to achieve a balance across the board, a mechanism that would be lost through contested elections where you could end up with X carbon copies of each other who all appeal to the vocal group that voted. That being said, I do think that IABC needs to be much more transparent about the opportunities for getting involved. Just to give one glaring example, NOWHERE at international level is there a listing of IABC committees, let alone information on how to get involved in them. That should be a standard page under About IABC. I also think it would be good if more of an effort were made by staff and leaders seeking input to drill down into the member directory and the demographic information therein in order to issue individual invitations to people to get involved according to their expertise. In my experience, such personalized invitations are much more successful than blanket calls, especially in countries that do not have a long history of member-led associations.
    With regard to best practice, it’s one of the top things that members ask for. The real issue is not whether to promote best practice, but who decides what best practice is. Here’s where your argument might come back and bite itself on the tail, because I am not sure that the accreditation and Gold Quill methodology are cultural neutral. These are questions I have been asking myself. Just to give one example, in cultures that are more communitarian and relationship-oriented how relevant is audience segmentation, especially if they are “diffuse” cultures that view people as holistic individuals rather than sorting them into various roles?
    (Once your comments appear on Mark’s blog, I’ll probably cross-post this reply.)

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Kristen, great response. I have to 100% agree with your observations about Gold Quill, and say 80% with Accreditation. I was on the UK judging panel for two years and found it incredibly de-spiriting on many levels (and having discussed it with other fellow judges I know was not alone). I don’t for a moment underestimate how hard it is to organise it and get people in to judge, but by the same token I was less than convinced that we had the right people in the room, nor the right atmosphere in either session I attended.

      I also had the privilege of being invited to be a Blue Ribbon panel judge. In terms of having a great experience, spending time with some of the world’s best and most inspiring communication professionals, and staying up way too late drinking beer with Jennier Wah, Todd Hattori, Jeffrey Ory and others it was second to none.

      And Unfortunately – and this is not remotely a jab at any of my fellow judges – again it sort of diminished the value of the Gold Quill in my eyes. The whole process sort of pretends to be blind and pretends to be somewhat objective, but the standard deviation amongst judging scores as meteoric, and what was deemed “winning” vs “not winning” ultimately subjective. And I know objectivity is impossible. But I have to agree they are far from culturally neutral, let alone neutral or fair in terms of the discipline from which the judge approaches the entry itself. Pension Administration Communicators judging corporate brand creative entries? Give me a f*cking break.

      But to me it became clear that Gold Quill awards are based more on the skill of the applicant in completing the application form rather than the quality of the entry. Again, I don’t want to take anything away from winners (me included) but let’s face it, if somebody wins 30 Gold Quills you have to begin to wonder – are they really that consistently brilliant? Or are they just very, very good at filling in the application?

      That doesn’t happen in any other creative endeavour – *everyone* has peaks and troughs!

      So (for a fee) I would be thrilled to have a stab at reinventing the criteria.

  11. Kevin — Even though I think there are imperfections, I don’t share your disillusionment about Gold Quill. I am actually a big proponent of the methodology behind Gold Quill and accreditation, but I think it needs to be viewed in context. It is a very useful methodology, but the end all be all.

    There is also a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: in order to have culturally/linguistically aware judges (especially for accreditation), you need people who are embedded in that language/culture who have become qualified to judge. But how do they pass without culturally/linguistically sensitive judges and adjudicators? (A question to ask the Slovenes who keep bring Gold Quills home by the fistful.)

    I also think that training judges thoroughly is critical for good results and is often a weakness. I was on the Blue Ribbon Panel twice, and we were much better prepared last year (with a briefing conference call) than was the case the first time.

    IABC France has hosted the French-language judging for several years, and when we have new judges we walk them through the judging process very carefully, making sure they apply the methodology very thoroughly. We actually hold their hand through the first round or two, making sure they are actually answering the specific judging/guidance questions and not confusing work plan and work sample scores. In the end, I think we get pretty objective results by doing that, but we invest A LOT of time in getting the judging criteria and guidance questions internalized and applied.

    Internalization of the methodology is the answer to your 30 GQ wins question: if you write your comms plan according to that outline, your chances of having a solid entry increase greatly. There are companies that REQUIRE their people to submit GQ entries as part of their professional development. Volume is certainly going to increase you chances of winning.

    And while there will always be a human/subjective element to the judging process, I much prefer this methodology to any beauty contest-type award. I just think we need to be careful about whether we think it is A standarrd of excellence or THE standard of excellence.

    • Kevin says:

      “There are companies that REQUIRE their people to submit GQ entries as part of their professional development.” Q.E.D. this entire conversation.

  12. G’day all, interesting post and more interesting discussion. For most of the first 20 years of my working career, I was on executives of professional associations and peak bodies, originally as a lawyer and later as a communicator. I have been on oversight bodies, ethics committees (and associations) and community and sporting group executives. So I think I can establish I’m a huge supporter of professional bodies. I am currently a member of 3, IABC (Member, unaccredited), Public Relations Institute of Australia (member, accredited) and Australian Institute of Management (Associate Fellow).

    I’m not on executives any more for a number of reasons though I am still a member. While some of the reasons are personal, I thought I’d try to hit the high points of the professional reasons, specifically for IABC and PRIA.

    1. Lack of leadership of the profession as a whole. The organisations are responsive to the feedback of member surveys, but what do they really tell you, as an earlier comment noted. Accreditation and Awards may be great promotions of individuals within the profession, but we are rarely held accountable by our peak bodies and they rarely dive into the fight on issues affecting our profession for fear of offending some of our stakeholders – and when they do, it tends to be in a very forgiving and apologetic manner.

    2. Lack of diversity – this isn’t just about having the same speakers at conferences over and over again, its also about the lack of cross-fertilisation with other professions and other professional associations. For example, we all talk about strategy, but how many times have we been to a professional development opportunity featuring financial analysts with approaches to strategy; some basic constructs of strategy include things like Game Theory, Chaos Theory and scenario planning, but our conferences are still talking about setting goals and aligning them to business objectives – Look at the differences between the really popular speakers at the Vancouver IABC International conference and the New York version a couple of years later, and the difference becomes all too apparent.

    3. Lack of opportunity creation – Where is our professional representation at conferences aimed at CEO, HR Directors, other industries? Where is the planned and implemented strategies aimed at communicating the overall professional message – the associations are generally so consumed with trying to attract members (generally at the expense of other professional bodies in the same/similar field) that they fail to recognise that really successful organisations attract customers/members through leadership and retain through services.

    4. Navel Gazing – we get so wrapped up in ourselves, we forget about the world around us. I don’t care if I’m in public relations or communications, and I hate the belittling of fellow professionals who work in different fields. Being a spin doctor is unimportant. I used to be a lawyer, aka shyster and many other terms of affection. Game theory tells us that we will all be better off with cooperative competition. How many of the debates we have are about what we do, what we are called, what’s affecting us within our profession? In the recent Tiger Woods debate, out came all the comments about crisis communication, immediate apologies, protecting the Tiger brand – where were the comments about family life, what Tiger needed to do to try to save his marriage if that’s what he wanted – comments not just about communications, but about the world around us (btw I can be as guilty of this as anyone).

    There are things that the associations do well, so I will continue to be a member. But I also used to believe that you get out of associations what you are prepared to put in. I put in a lot to communications bodies over the years, but haven’t got that much out of them.

    Mike, you should never have asked for my contribution (damn twitter)! But I’m happy to say that trickle down/top down comms as a major strategy (esp internal) ignores the fundamental basics of leadership and human behaviour. Many CEO love it of course, but the time for advocating it as a solo methodology should have been long gone. Cheers geoff

  13. I don’t know that I can add much more to the substance of the discussion, so let me add some comments on minor (but, I hope, interesting) points from a member of 31 years’ standing.

    India currently has 38 members in IABC, most of them recruited, I’d guess, by the phenomenal Bish Mukherjee, who works in both India and Australia. While that’s a small percentage of all the communicators out there, it’s pretty remarkable when you consider the cost the annual dues represent in terms of buying power. When my husband and I were out there a few years back, we treated about 65 extended family members to a multi-course, table-service meal at a luxurious, roof-top restaurant for less than $90–in total, not per person. I’ve been a member long enough to remember when the UK and Australian regions had about that many members. I expect to see huge growth for IABC in India in the coming years.

    As a past Blue Ribbon judge and multiple Quill winner (though never in the same years–I always abstain if I or a client plans to enter in any given year), there is indeed a secret to winning Gold Quills, and it does relate to filling out the paperwork. However, it also relates to doing excellent communication focused on helping achieve organizational results. It’s nearly impossible to gather enough points to win an award unless you have measurable objectives and measurable results for each objective. Measurable results does not include one memorable entry I recall, “My speech-writing client was so pleased she sent me a dozen roses.” I did award that entry 1 out of 7 possible points for measurable results since she did, at least, count the number of roses.

    Finally, I’m afraid I may have nightmares about one of the images in your opening statements. I’m a little concerned that you’ve been grilling and seasoning sacred cows without slaughtering them first.

    Keep up the great dialogue!


  14. Indy says:

    On commscrum:

    Great job so far – I’m curious where you take it next… you’ve done some good grilling… what’s next for the fire?

    On associations as a whole – question for everyone – International Association of (Business) X. or Institute of X. What’s missing out there in the world for you?

    For me it’s real interdisciplinary focus. RSA stakes out some of that territory, but I’m not completely convinced, esp. wrt business…

    On IABC:

    Where to begin? Kristen, Kevin and Geoff have hit a lot of my points already.

    1) It’s how I first met all the commscrummers… so something kind of still works about “associations.”

    2) I think IABC’s biggest problem is not so much the things it is doing wrong, but that it hasn’t realised that the economic model is dead outside areas where it has at least critical mass and preferably super-critical mass. Providing knowledge is less valuable than before – and volunteers have less time outside of work than ever. So two core parts of the IABC model are struggling.

    3) IABC also struggles anywhere where it arrived late. There are some benefits for a marketing person to join IABC in the UK, but lets be honest, CIM provides a lot more. CIPR is a closer call I would argue, but CIPR still wins out on the career side I would guess. And all this mitigates against the critical local mass to make face-to-face events interesting year in year out.

    4) People say accreditation and GQ are the things that work… and I can accept that in principle. I’ve never done a piece of work that would fit easily into the criteria for those awards though. I used to say that was because “I’m not really a communicator” and that’s still partly true… but it’s also because I am interdisciplinary. I can live without GQ – there are enough awards for different things that I can find one to enter case by case, but I do feel that the form of accreditation is symptomatic of a pretty closed mindset about both what communication is and what job roles constitute the right background to be accredited.

    Solutions? Really tricky to say without knowing more about the economics of IABC as a whole. Certainly my local chapter has a real problem… but that’s for another day.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Hi Indy,

      Probably the most concise and accurate response in my view. I can’t over-emphasise how much I agree with the “symptomatic of a closed mindset about what communication is”.

      That is the entire thing in a nutshell.

      I have countless experiences as an IABC member, Gold Quill, Blue Ribbon panelist, conference presenter where this is the case. I won’t go into detail but I saw a great entry put on the trash heap because the omiscient IABC ABC APR BFD judge – not the entrant – DIDN’T GET IT. I tried (at this stage admittedly a bit half-heartedly, apologies to the entry) to make the case…

      The people who resonate with CommScrum are cut from a different cloth, I suspect.

      Dan’s quote about brand, communication and business all being the same thing when put in front of the word strategy resonates.

      • Indy says:

        I think a discussion of “what communication is” (and perhaps how that’s expressed through definition of association, prize giving and accreditation) could be really useful.

        I love the sound of Sean Trainor’s mission to create CIPR/CIM/CIPD collaboration – esp. because it includes CIPD. Part of the reason I joined IABC is that CIPR/CIM were too narrowly focused on particular ideas of what communication is.

        If I have a philosophical frustration with IABC, it’s that it hasn’t grasped that interdisciplinary nettle (and the opportunites there) the way it could – and that’s reflected in GQ and ABC.

      • sean trainor says:

        Thanks for your support for a joined-up agenda Indy.
        Narrow minded is one way to describe “gold quill” all it says to me is “if you cannot write with style, then don’t apply”
        Forget Gold Quill subscribe to the “Silver Bullet Awards” brought to you by uber engagement – beyond the plaudits!

    • Sean Trainor says:

      I’ve been a member of CIPR for over 10 years now and last year I considered redirecting my subscription fees elsewhere.
      I never felt that they totally engaged with the IC Crowd. I shopped around and voted with my feet – I stayed with them and joined CIPR Inside.
      1. It’s Chartered, has high professional standards, and leads on CPD.
      2. I firmly believe that business communicators need be more joined-up internally/externally.
      3. I thought I would try and make a difference.

      We are now on a roll. Just organised a conference last week themed around the MacLeod report
      Excellent line up: Chairman of Olympics, HRD of M&S, CEO of First Direct and Comms Director of Unipart.
      Very accessible: 1/2 day at the IoD run on a not-for-profit basis – £50 ticket.
      Very good feedback: satisfaction 94%; speakers 92%; venue 88%, organisation 94%

      Next step CIPR/CIM/CIPD collaboration. Now that will be joined-up.

  15. Hi Mike, in regards to your comment on having an “open space” during the IABC conference: this year, we’re having one ( I joined IABC last year, lucked my way onto a panel at the San Francisco conference, and ended up meeting a bunch of folks thanks to Twitter (same way I stumbled onto this blog). During the conference, I found myself wanting to gather these folks together for an open discussion, but the conference is so packed, it’s hardly possible.

    A group of us kept in touch, partnered to submit the unconference as a session, and we were accepted. Only Bryan Person has presented at IABC before; the rest of us are new. The only thing we couldn’t get that you mentioned was attendance by folks who aren’t registered for the full conference. Maybe next year? But if anyone here is attending the conference in Toronto this June, I hope you’ll plan to participate in the Sunday afternoon unconference. Diverse perspectives wanted! 🙂

    I look forward to catching up on the ideas here. As far as IABC goes, so far so good for me….

    • Mike Klein says:

      An IABC Unconference? A mere three hours buried a bit in the obscurity of the Sunday pre-shindig agenda to be sure, carrying a $375 minimum price tag (one-day fee for the whole of the Sunday) indeed, but this is unquestionably a step in the right direction. A bit of “glasnost” we Ostalgie freaks might say.#

      My only concern here is that this event is so obscure at the moment that if it fails to be a massive hit, it could easily be dismissed as an alternative for future conferences. That cannot be allowed to happen.

      • The idea of a facilitated, participant-driven conference in TO is a great one.

        Would be fun to think about a real unconference – unsponsored, no/low cost + participant-driven – With all the energy in this gang and our social media savvy I think we could have done something pretty creative… in parallel or before or after.

        Or something in Europe?

  16. Kevin, I don’t understand your QED comment above. I think this is a damn clever way for a company to use its association well:
    1. Identify a behavior/methodology you want your team to use
    2. Make use of reasonably priced memberships rather than expensive bespoke training to transmit the knowledge.
    3. Use third-party validation (GQ) to reinforce the behavior, so it’s not just coming from the individual “boss”


    I’ve had another thought about this whole stream, re GQ. Surely it is contradictory to say that the judging process is subjective and to say you can become a serial winner by getting good at the paperwork. If getting good at the paperwork is enough allows you to achieve consistent wins, then it is not subjective. QED. 😉

    • kevinkeohane says:

      That argument is completely circular. If you follow the system, the system must work and therefore your work is good if you follow the system?

      So let me get this straight: you are saying the IABC Gold Quill Judging process is objective?

      It assumes the system is “best practice” .

      Arguably, it isn’t as many are discussing here.

  17. Kevin — The issues of objectivity and best practice are not the same thing. To test objectivity, you need to ask whether the same/similar entries will achieve similar results. In scientific terms, is the experimental outcome repeatable? That is a very different question from asking whether the methodology applied actually accomplished the stated outcome (in this case, identifying best practice).

    In a nutshell, the Gold Quill/ABC process defines best practice as setting measureable, strategy-related oobjectives, implementing appropriate solutions to achieve them and then verifying that the desired impact has occurred. In theory, this system should be supple enough to apply to a large range of solutions (although I do believe that some review is probably required to improve the adaptability of the framework.)

    What I don’t understand is what is your definition of best practice if it’s not that? What is your methodology? It would be useful for this discussion if you could articulate your definition of best practice. I am not asking that to be difficult but to better understand where you want to go.

    Innovation is a wonderful thing, and I believe that best practice should 1) always be evolving and 2) be adapted to local circumstances (i.e. “best” refers not to a one-size-fits-all approach but the most effective, locally suited approach that achieves the desired outcomes). But I don’t worship at the altar of innovation for its own sake.

    • Kevin says:

      I think this is an interesting enough debate to perhaps merit an entire CommScrum posting about communication awards in general.

      And I don’t want to conflate debates about “best practice” with that debate.

      My short answer would be best practice by definition isn’t, nor can it be. And of course I’m not advocating innovation for innovation’s sake.

      I just think “best practice” is sometimes trotted out as a panacea for thinking about it and working it out in the best way possible. We’ve all seen seen alleged “best practices” that are woefully out of date.

      I actually do probably worship at the altar of innovation. Not for its own sake, but because that’s where great ideas usually come from. I guess I look a bit more forward than backward and always think “there must be a better way,” rather than downloading a “best practice.”

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Where does “best practice” come from. Erm … innovation. It didn’t just fall off a tree.

      Innovation inspiration? Try here for potential future best practices. These people didn’t download a £199 PDF from an association website to solve their problem.

  18. Well, here’s another vote for greatest CommScrum ever.

    I’ve been quite active in chapter leadership over the years, and last year got involved regionally for the first time. I have told nearly everyone I’ve recruited into IABC that it is this involvement that has brought me the most value of my membership.

    That said, there are many barriers to deeper participation. I thought about applying to my regional board, but got scared off by the rather onerous (or at least lengthy) application process, not to mention the requirement for my organization’s support for my membership. Now, as a sole proprietor, I probably don’t have the resources to become involved on a board level regionally, let alone internationally.

    The speaker’s rules (as Mike K describes above) are a huge hurdle. I’ve trained more than 5,000 managers on communication skills, including sessions of more than 500 at a time. But the client didn’t do any measurement, nor were they willing to let us do it. I’ve given half a dozen talks in the past year, and no one did measurement. I can encourage them to do so, but it’s the organization’s call. Very frustrating, especially since informal evaluations indicate that I’m very good and quite entertaining.

    So what to do? Junk my 20-year membership? I also belong to PRSA, albeit only briefly. Many of the same complaints and concerns surface around that organization too. I’ll continue to press for more substantive measurement and evaluation, and for making a determined effort to, with respect, push for more diverse speakers from outside the IABC beltway. I can’t do that from outside the organization, only from within.

    As to Gold Quill – would that I had material to enter! I still find the cases valuable, and recommend them to people frequently.

    • commscrum says:

      Don’t junk your IABC membership, Sean… I have no intention of doing so myself.


      • Well, I am once again seriously considering junking my IABC membership for many of the reasons stated in this thread.

        I especially shout “hear-hear” to Sean’s observations. As a self-employed consultant, I can no longer afford to participate in leadership beyond the chapter level (which I’ve done to the hilt) or to attend regional or international conferences. I also share his frustration regarding presenters. I’ve led scores of workshop and conference sessions for various organizations and clients over the years, but either due to lack of measurement or size of the crowd, I’m disqualified to be an IABC presenter. And I wish I had material to enter GQ, but unfortunately my clients don’t like the work I do for them put on display.

        About the only thing keeping me around IABC is my accreditation, but I’m not sure that is worth the price tag any more.

        Great discussion.

      • commscrum says:

        Robert–thanks for your comments…

        Regarding the junking of a membership, I too battled a range of thoughts as I committed pre-revenue cash for an IABC renewal, and an even fiercer range of thoughts as I sacrificed thousands of unearned dollars and tens of thousands of hard-earned frequent flyer miles on the altar of the IABC Conference in Toronto for June.

        For me, it’s a bet–a bet that the networking and the connections made will jumpstart the commercial side of my activities, as well as building a stronger “tribe” of folks who are excited about the possibility of a more liberated business comms profession out there. It’s also a way of validating the historic decision to incorporate an UnConference into the Conference agenda.

        I know you’ve been around the block–indeed, you’re one of the lions of the profession and they should just make you a Fellow and be done with it. And it’s anyone’s guess whether IABC will get the hint about making its platforms more open to alternative perspectives, alternative ways of demonstrating professional accomplishment, and in particular, making some accommodations for first-time presenters for coveted Conference slots. But I think this discussion has raised the stakes around these issues enough to make one more year worth it.

        Given the pace at which our world as communicators is changing, if IABC doesn’t change commensurately in the next year, will this discussion even be interesting?

        All the best,


  19. Sean Trainor says:

    Audits, plaudits, fraudits

    Who cares?

    1. the sponsors of the association award (Towers Watson won gold quill for HR this year)
    2. the chair of the association (former Chair of one association promised me an award for my company magazine if his agency won the pitch – they didnt!)
    3. the treasurer of the association (a former boss of mine was given the following guidance when judging “just make sure there are enough shortlisted to fill 6 tables at the awards ceremony”)

    anyone else?

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