IABC at 50: The View from Cape Town

(The following is lifted from a fictional [?] 3 June 2020 copy of the Wall Street Journal purloined from the Time Travel exhibit at the Ontario Space Centre in Toronto during this week’s IABC World Conference)

CAPE TOWN:  In what has become the world’s most-covered business gathering since it supplanted the World Economic Forum in the number of press credentials requested last year, the International Alliance for Business Communication (IABC) convened its 50th annual World Conference amid unprecedented interest in communication as the central discipline of successful enterprises worldwide.

“When I came to my first IABC World Conference in 2010, IABC and business communicators were facing great opportunity–but scared to walk away from our roots.  We wanted to be good at serving, and afraid to be good at leading.  Baby, we’ve come a long way.”

So said Intel CEO Jerry Schultz, recipient of the Alliance’s Exceed Award, given to communication professionals who have risen to major leadership positions in global enterprises.  Schultz, 43, credited a key decision by IABC leaders in 2010 to treat its mission and its business objectives as related but separate challenges, as the catalyst for the Alliance’s spectacular growth, and ultimately a shift in the self perception of the communication profession into one capable of leading major enterprises.

“When I started out, we worked for the accountants, technology folks and finance people.  Now, more and more and more, around the world, they are working under our leadership.  There was never an 11th commandment that said ‘Thou shalt work for bean counters.’  It’s not about ‘proving our value to management’ any more.  Now, more of us communicators are the ones in the front of the table, and we are connecting, engaging and mobilizing people for growth, change and sustainability on a previously unimaginable scale.”

Such accomplishments, along with 900% membership growth over the last decade, were indeed unimaginable for IABC in 2009, when, buffeted by the last recession, the organization was losing members to social networks and found its international growth prospects hemmed in.  The time for pottering around the edges of an outmoded model and philosophy had clearly come to an end.

“We stabilized ourselves in 2009-2010, but quickly recognized that our audience and our members were not interested in a stable association.  They needed to become dynamic, no easy task in a group that saw itself less as a movement and more as a family,” said IABC President-Emeritus Julie Freeman.  “We had to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realised that focussing on the status quo would be the road to extinction.”

“The transformation of communicators from corporate servants to corporate leaders directly paralleled IABC’s own transformation from a North America-focused association of 15,000 into an alliance incorporating national and online communication networks – as well as several related associations in the PR and HR arenas such as PRSA, CIPD and others – with more than 200,000 advocates worldwide,” said Prof. Eb Banful of the Kellogg-Medill School at Northwestern University near Chicago, the first of several merged business and communication faculties at leading institutions.  “As the grumblings about ‘why don’t we get a seat the table’ shifted to a mission to bring communication  and communicators to the head of that table, it caused IABC to rethink and reject its core business assumptions.  The power of communication in all fields of human endeavour prevailed over discipline-specific territorialism, and’it’s all about communication’ became the new mantra for many of our high flying students.”

Current IABC President Rob Briggs of London was at first skeptical.  “We were great as an association–we had a dedicated membership, great camaraderie and great events.  But when we really saw this opportunity, we took bold decisions like reducing membership dues 90%, shifting to a sponsor-based financial model, and focusing on building the world’s best business audience.  We built it, and they came.”

And it’s not just ‘communicators’ who jumped on the bandwagon — indeed, slots and seats were at a premium in Cape Town.  The 3,000 Delegates, selected by their peers, received free travel and perks from sponsors seeking coveted access to their networks and enterprises.   Key sessions, such as tonight’s keynote debate between UN Secretary General Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the finals of the Gold Fibre Awards are boom-casted to member gatherings around the globe.

“After the dues reduction, the scariest decisions were to integrate our chapters outside North America with those of local associations who then became Alliance partners, and to spin off our accreditation program,” said former IABC Chair Mark Schumann, who set IABC’s redefinition in motion.  “We moved the action close to a broader audience.”

“But the benefits of those decisions drove a surge in membership and advocacy, a deepening of our global reach and our global connections, and the development of a credential that became attractive to business leaders from other disciplines seeking to demonstrate their communication bona fides.  Indeed, the ABC began to become a sought-after credential not unlike the MBA at the turn of the century, and was integrated into curricula at schools like Kellogg-Medill.”

Where does IABC go from here? “We still need to raise our game,” said Briggs.  “When business realized that communication was the world’s real currency, it started to welcome communicators to the top table.  But organizations communicate not just through their leaders, missions and performance.  Governance, ownership structures, and balancing shareholder and stakeholder interests are now things we’re being asked for answers about.  But these are challenges we are happy to face.”

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4 thoughts on “IABC at 50: The View from Cape Town

  1. Dan Gray says:

    Now there’s a CommScrum first. Have we stunned everyone into silence?

  2. Mike Klein says:

    Some posts are meant to be comment-provoking. This one’s more thought-provoking.

    To be fair, the gap between “better than Toronto” and “bigger than Davos” is massive.

    Even if there’s a critical mass of people who want to bridge such a gap over the coming ten years, the navigation of that pathway will require unprecedented risk-taking and leadership within the profession, as well as a favorable global environment.

    But the question I’m left with is this–is this a future we are even willing to consider at this point? I certainly hope so.

    Mike Klein

  3. Adam Hibbert says:

    Oh, go on, then, I’ll have a pop (sigh).

    I don’t have any personal experience of the IABC, so I’ll pass on that … pausing only to note a certain “Luke, I am your Father” story arc developing here …

    Right: why do we want to be strategically influential, people? What is the good of us being involved in strategy-formation before decisions are announced? Is it our unique (and undeniably perky) geniuses? Is it our singular expertise in the leading of men (etc)? Perhaps it’s that we can waggle our lips and tap our keyboards with a style that’s far in advance of any over-promoted CFO? Hmmm.

    Not in my book, it isn’t. It’s because we represent a constituency that tends to be under-represented in C-Suite decision-making: the employee. And the C-Suite kinda relies on those folks to get the decisions executed, but often fails to consider how best to ask them to do it until after the decisive moment.

    Now, the point of, say, Jeremy Paxman, is not to be Prime Minister – it’s to maintain a bridge of understanding between the policy making world, and the poor schmucks on the receiving end, whose physical reaction to the logic of Westminster could would best be captured on paper by that cartoonist of breaches of Edwardian etiquette – recoil and horror.

    So my objective is not in the least to *become* the boss. It’s to educate the organisation into a mode in which employees are involved before decisions are taken, so the C-Suite and the employees arrive at decisions *together*, and are therefore equally ready to execute.

    The aim is a new mode of organisation in which ‘communication’ is no longer artificially separated from questions of control and leadership – not by making the “communicator” into Darth Vader.

    • Jeroen Pronk says:

      @ Adam – great post! I think you are right. Internal communication is about being sensitive to what is going within an organisation. And about being able to make connections between various stakeholders. Internal communication is not the leader, it is the connector. In that sense it is all about gatewatching and not gatekeeping.

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