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BRING ON THE WORLD IABC Communicators Are Ready to Send It Into Orbit.

IABC 1999 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE Washington, D.C.

Was it just a few pears ago that the communication profession still talked about trying to get a seat at the table?

At past IABC conferences, we lamented our plight as communicators (well, maybe you didn't, but I did). We voiced concerns such as, "We have to show senior management that we're NOT 'overhead!' "And "We must quantify our work!"

And we'd do it, we assured each other at so many seminars and networking receptions, by adhering to the Four Principles of Business Communication: Planning, Research, Implementation and...umm, what was that fourth thing?

It must have worked. Perhaps the Information Age finally caught up with us. (Yeah, go ahead and read that sentence again; I'll wait.) Maybe we all got older and wiser. And maybe, just maybe, the pioneering work of nearly 50 IABC Fellows, a dozen EXCEL award winners, the IABC Research Foundation and countless IABC Gold Quill winners has finally started paying off.

As emphatically demonstrated at BRING ON THE WORLD, the IABC international conference in Washington, D.C., June 20-23, the communication profession has indeed arrived. Forget about this "establishing a place at the table" thing -- these days, that's a "how to" session for entry-level communicators. As a profession, we've moved up on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- we're beyond basic survival; now we re talking issues.

At this year's conference, we talked about "change management" and "brand identity" and modifying the behavior of those CEOs who still haven't bought a ticket on the Communication Clue Bus. Issues such as diversity, writing for the web and strategic planning have matured from curious offerings of a few years ago. Crisis communication? IABC counts among its nearly 14,000 members a number of communicators who make a pretty nice living fixing sick, outdated and bumbling organizations. These days, we could probably run a human resources department as well as we could communication.

How far along have we come? Why, at BRING ON THE WORLD, we even let George Stephanopoulos talk to us about ethics! And that, as it turned out, ruffled more than a few feathers.

The Ethics Thing

Ethics dominated the early going at BRING ON THE WORLD. And who better, perhaps more symbolically, to start the ethics discussion than a central Washington "insider" of the '90s? Stephanopoulos, the former White House communication officer-turned author, professor, television commentator and morning show host (at this rate, by the end of the year he'll be an astronaut), offered tidbits from his best-selling book, some gossip about U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady (and U.S. Senate candidate) Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his views on organizational communication.

"How do you communicate ethically and responsibly?" Stephanopoulos posed. "I reject the notion that all public relations, all communication, all spin is bunk. I obviously don't believe it, even though it's gotten a bad rap here in Washington. But when it's done right, it's proper and effective."

Stephanopoulos said he regretted not pressing the Clintons harder for the truth on several issues, such as the Whitewater investigation, which he said in hindsight could have been defused earlier. "The cover-up is always worse than the crime," he noted. "Had we released information up front, I'm convinced that four or five stories would have been written, and that would have been that.

"Instead, we got the longest-running independent counsel investigation ever, and the president got impeached. [Clinton] would not have been impeached if he had told the truth. The investigation and the impeachment were not about the event -- it was about the cover-up."

By nearly all accounts, Stephanopoulos came off as sincere, funny, charming and was well-received. But, several participants said Stephanopoulos's remarks left a strange aftertaste.

Sean Caragata, a former senior aide to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, objected to Stephanopoulos' "casual nature" in revealing private moments of the Clintons'. "I felt that Stephanopoulos was setting a low ethical standard by revealing those confidences," said Caragata, now general manager of corporate affairs at Sask Tel in Regina. "Even though I no longer work for the premier, I still feel bound by the confidences of his office and the persons I worked for."

Amy Miller, senior manager of news and information for the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists in Washington, D.C., concurred. "He's talking about ethics and what we should do as communicators, but look at his ethics," Miller observed.

And Gina Connell, BPR, ABC, director of communication at Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine in Halifax, Nova Scotia, termed "insulting" Stephanopoulos' repeated use of the word "spin" in relation to business communicators. "It implies that we look at public relations as a reactive profession," she said, "It really struck me that the kind of communication he was talking about was one-way. His goal was to try to get a headline a certain way. It seems short-sighted and doesn't get to the heart of strategic communication."

Give Stephanopoulos some credit, though -- he did dress up in costume during the opening of the conference to quote Shakespeare.

If a Business Communicator Fell Down in the Woods, Would She Still 'Network'?

Judging from observations at BRING ON THE WORLD, yes. If each of the close to 1,500 participants brought 25 business cards (total: about 37,500), and exchanged them at the Networking Reception, Night Out, Gold Quill, and various other events, it should (according to a project I'm proposing to the IABC Research Foundation) produce the following results: 42,000 e-mails, 74,000 phone calls, 8,000 job interviews, 10 marriages, 52 divorces and 1,300 job offers.

In other words, by next year's conference in Vancouver, every participant should have a new job, thanks to BRING ON THE WORLD!

'Somebody Should Clone This Guy'

A pleasant by-product of the New Clout enjoyed by communicators: the competition for the IABC EXCEL Award, given to the business leader who shows leadership in fostering and participating in good communication, has gotten much tougher. (See related article on page 17.)

But future nominees may be hard-pressed to top the immaculate qualifications of this year's EXCEL winner, Unisys Corp. CEO Lawrence Weinbach. In just 18 months at Unisys, Weinbach reduced debt by more than $1 billion, the corporation's stock price more than doubled, and profits in 1998 doubled 1997 figures.

But Weinbach's success goes deeper than making shareholders happy. During his tenure, employee and customer satisfaction levels have reached new highs, based primarily on Weinbach's communication strategy. His "open e-mail policy" resulted in more than 4,500 messages sent to him by employees in his first six weeks, of which he personally answered more than 2,000. And he has met with more than 25,000 Unisys employees-worldwide.

Weinbach said his philosophy centers on a simple mission statement: Customers, Employees, Reputation. "My goal for the company was very simple: I wanted to create an environment of trust," Weinbach told the conference from the south of France via satellite link. "To do that, you need to communicate."

Afterward, one participant (who must, for obvious reasons, remain nameless) mused out loud, "I wish he were my CEO. Somebody should clone this guy."

Speaking of Change...

'Is there anyone here who is not going through change?"

That question, posed by Ayelet Baron, managing consultant at ODR Inc., produced nary a hand during her breakout session, "Communicating Change @ the Speed of Change." It demonstrated not only how change has emerged in the work place, but also how important the role of communicators has become in managing change.

"During a period of change, I never tell a client that productivity is going to stay the same," Baron said. And she offered some startling data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Even before a period of change, productivity at most organizations rarely tops 60 percent; but during periods of transition, productivity drops to 15 percent, and social gossip increases from 1 percent to 40 percent.

"People don't know what to focus on," Baron said, noting that many employees believe the greatest obstacle in change is management behaviors that are not perceived as supportive. "How leaders communicate and what employees want to know are two different things."

Baron said the- role of organizational communication is more important today than in any previous period. She suggested a "cascading information" action plan to involve employees from the bottom up, "sponsors" (people who take ownership of particular aspects of change) and constant communication to give employees the information they need. "Don't wait for a 'grand announcement,'" Baron said. "By then, it's too late."

'Every Day Above the Ground Is a Good One'

Usually when one thinks about cultural differences, one considers those involving language or customs between people from widely ranging cultures (such as the old "Coke Adds Life" slogan translating into Chinese as "Coke Brings Back Your Ancestors from the Grave").

Keynote speaker and author Catherine DeVrye shattered that myth by demonstrating how two seemingly compatible cultures -- those of Canada and Australia -- can face similar cultural roadblocks.

(WARNING: the following contains sexually explicit language, particularly if you are from Australia, and possibly New Zealand.)

DeVrye, a Canadian by birth who worked in Japan before moving to Australia (got that?), related a story about her first professional job in Australia, as a physical education teacher in Melbourne.

"I joined just during the Grand Final period of Australian Rules Football [author's note: a sport that makes rugby and American football look like afternoon tea at Wimbledon], and the kids asked me who I 'barrack' for," DeVrye said. "In Australia, it means 'who do you cheer for?' In Canada it means 'who do you support?' So I said, 'I root for Melbourne,' nor realizing that 'root' is slang for [the sex act] in Australia. The kids got a kick out of that."

But DeVrye didn't come to Washington to just talk about "rooting." She discussed change -- "it's inevitable, and while we can't control change, we can control our attitude toward change"; communication -- "the best communicators are the best listeners"; and customer service -- "your best customers will complain. The others will vote with their feet. You should love getting complaints, because it helps you provide better service."

DeVrye also talked about personal and professional challenges, and related the story of her search for peace after her parents died and how a longtime friend gave her he words that have motivated her since. "He told me, 'every day above the ground is a good one,'" she said. "I couldn't bring my parents back, but what I could change was my attitude. I can't worry about what I can't do anything about, but I can control my destiny."

DeVrye's inspiring words produced a standing ovation and a long line afterward at her book signing.

In a Word, 'Ranly'

Don Ranly could offer a workshop on "How to Make Really Annoying Noises with Your Fingernails on a Chalkboard" and still pack the house.

Ranly is unlike other college journalism professors, many who earned tenure while defending the cathode ray tube as the future of communication. Over the years, Ranly has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to change (there's that word again) in the communication field while advocating for the print medium.

"We don't need to defend print, but we do need to redefine it, and write differently for it," Ranly said during his presentation on "Reinventing Print." "We have to make it new again, and make it relevant."

Ranly has made more than 850 presentations, and although the themes may sound similar from year to year, one never really gets tired of hearing them. How many times have you heard him say, "Communication is more than about writing. It's about headlines, pull quotes, summary paragraphs...?" Many times. How many times do you still need to hear it? Many more.

Rather than lament the onset of electronic journalism as the death knell of print, Ranly embraces it, and teaches us how to write for both media. "You're in the media business," he says. "If you don't mix, you're going to die. A mix of media is exponentially better than one."

And Ranly begs us to "let go, put the reader in charge -- so that he or she uses the information as they see fit. When writers think outside the box, they become communicators."

I will be back at Ranly's seminar next year.

Final Observations

BRING ON THE WORLD brought the highest number of communicators to an IABC conference since Toronto in 1995 -- close to 1,500 communicators from 35 countries, including Japan, Slovenia, Belgium, New Zealand and Texas.

And the conference answered questions facing business communicators in this everchanging world, except for one: why is it that even when the farthest seat from the stage is less than 150 feet, we look at the video monitors instead of the person on stage?

That's an issue I'd like to see addressed next year in Vancouver.

Mike Sorohan is Senior Writer/Analyst for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Arlington, Va.
COPYRIGHT 1999 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators
Author:Sorohan, Mike
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 1999
Words:2163
Previous Article:What's New? Everything.
Next Article:The Ethics of Keeping Secrets.
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