Earlier this year, while attending the IABC Leadership Institute in Austin, Texas, and taking my last pre-COVID transoceanic trips, I had a sense that the coming months would present IABC with unprecedented challenges.
2020 has not been particularly kind to IABC.
Job losses and corporate cuts in contribution to employee membership dues have hit IABC’s long-stretched finances hard and set the stage for a significant fall in membership. So did the need to convert the Association’s annual World Conference into a virtual online gathering, further roiling the finances and taking away an event that is a major annual highlight.
Add in an extended transition to a new management team, and you have an association that is looking inward at the time of the biggest external crisis that it has faced in its 50-year history.
But while COVID is a direct challenge to IABC’s financial stability, a crisis on the other end of the world from IABC’s new Chicago headquarters exposes vulnerabilities that speak to the association’s raison d’etre – the passage this month of discriminatory legislation in Australia that will require seekers of communication and PR degrees in the country’s public universities to pay more than double the price for their studies than students seeking more “job-friendly” degrees in the favored Science-Technology-Engineering-Math categories known as STEM.
IABC’s chapters in the region fought bravely on the issue once the legislation was moving, and created unprecedented partnerships with “rival” associations to establish a joint Australian Communications Advocacy Group.
Yet, despite IABC HQ’s insistence that this is a local issue and its long record of hesitation to get involved tangibly in its stated priority of “advancing the profession”,the precedent – the treatment of communication and PR degrees as “luxury items” – has potentially corrosive implications for the profession that IABC and other comms professional bodies can no longer ignore.
First, this legislation is easily copied – largely as written – in countries that have similarly subsidized university systems, such as European countries and Canada.
Second, the legislation reinforces the running commentary about communication as a second-tier science and indeed a second-tier profession, commentary implicit in the arguments in favor of the legislation.
It is this second implication that should be most sobering for IABC. For 50 years, IABC has put itself out as the global representative of the communication profession. Setting aside its degree of cooperation with other players in the field, the most significant example being its withdrawal from the inter-association Global Alliance in 2017, its own record of industry and professional advocacy appears to be a bare cupboard.
Partly, this is due to a longstanding argument (dating back to the 2007 IABC Advocacy Task Force) within the Association about whether “Advocacy” in IABC terms meant IABC advocating on behalf of the communication profession – or advocating on behalf of IABC.
October 2020 did not find IABC making a case for the value its members provide to the economy – a case whose absence is contributing to massive job (and dues) loss throughout its membership. It wasn’t preparing members with great examples of value created by communication professionals, or of methodologies to help members justify their contributions to their employers and enterprises.
It found IABC running yet another Member Month, its semi-annual effort to encourage members to try to sell their peers on the benefits of IABC.
These benefits are not inconsiderable for some. But is focusing solely on them and on selling memberships leaves a gap between how IABC sells itself to members and prospects and where its actual priorities lie. selling members and our profession shosed that IABC needs to raise its game in advocacy, and potentially even change its focus to drive advocacy for the profession. Indeed, – and that the visibility generated by the success of such efforts would embolden communicators and attract a new and potentially large set of passionate members. Rejoining the Global Alliance would also be seen as a sign of seriousness and a message that IABC is willing again to play well with others.
Advocacy does not have to be cumbersome or expensive. Members are aware of online advocacy programs like AVAAZ and Change worldwide and MoveOn in the States, and platforms like Nation Builder can be used for pennies a day.
IABC’s declining membership and missed opportunities like the Australia case raise this as a legitimate question. After nearly 13 years since the last Advocacy Task Force, why does IABC continue to talk the talk of “Advancing The Profession” without serious tangible steps in the right direction?
The biggest challenge by far is cultural. Will IABC be finally willing to look outward to make a difference for the larger profession, or will it double down on its current, inward, uber-deliberative approach as the global recession and pandemic continue to rage.
Mike is the Principal of Changing The Terms and a nineteen-year member of IABC. The former chair of IABC’s Europe – Middle East – North Africa region. Based in Reykjavik, Iceland, Mike is a specialist in internal communication, strategy and content, having worked for and with major organizations like Shell, Cargill, Barclays, easyJet and the US Federal Government. Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School and previously managed political campaigns throughout the United States.