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George McGrath, IABC Chairman 1992-93.

McGrath sees change, and offers new ways for communicators to adjust to new realities.

GG: How did you select communication as a career?

Believe it or not, I answered a help wanted ad in The New York Times. Actually, I always enjoyed writing, and I have been an avid reader as long as I can remember. I worked on the high school newspaper and wrote short stories in college. I spotted an ad for an employee publications editor at a retail company and figured that might be an interesting compromise between a writing and business career.

When I stepped into that job, I took over the prior tenant's IABC membership. At first, I just read the publications, then started going to IABC workshops and seminars. These were especially helpful because I didn't have any formal training in organizational communication. Also, I was a one-person communication department. So the IABC member network was a great source of ideas and encouragement. When I was ready to make a career move, my IABC network helped. I found my next job at a public relations firm through a recruiter I met at a meeting.

GG: Why do you like the profession?

Business communication is one of the most stimulating, challenging professions around. It's a business discipline that requires a high degree of creativity. I enjoy it because of the variety. You can work on everything from marketing a new product, to handling a crisis, to building teamwork among employees -- sometimes all in the same day. And it's a wide open field. There are not a lot of limits to what you can do besides the ones you may place on yourself.

GG: How and when did you first become actively involved in IABC?

The way most people do: Someone asked me. At a New York chapter luncheon, one of the members introduced himself and got me involved as a volunteer. We are still good friends 12 years later, despite all the late nights and weekends I've put in on IABC work. I really enjoyed the people I met through the association, and by being actively involved, I met lots more of them. I served in various posts on the New York/IABC board, then became the chapter president, then served on the district board before being elected to the executive board in 1988.

GG: What are your personal and professional goals?

On the personal side, simply to strike the right balance between family and career, with family always coming first. On the professional side, I want to keep doing a good job for my clients, help the firm grow, and be the best practitioner I can be. I also enjoy giving something back to the profession and sharing what I've learned through seminars, articles, and discussing the business with colleagues and peers.

GG: Communicators around the world are facing some tough issues -- unstable economies, political turmoil. What will they need to do to ensure stability in both their careers and for the future of the profession?

First, get used to living with instability. We're shifting from a world of competing national interests to a world of competing business interests, from independent nation-states to interdependent economic alliances. The organizational pyramid is being flattened to bring top management closer to line employees and customers and speed reaction times. At the same time, organizations are expanding horizontally, linking employees, customers, suppliers and communities. I think it's safe to say we're living through a period of social, economic and political change unprecedented in our lifetimes. The outlines of the new global society are emerging, but the transition will take many years and will not be easy.

Turbulent times demand maximum flexibility from organizations and individuals. Most of us will work for six or seven employers in the course of our careers. We may even have to make career shifts, from employee communication to human resources management, or from marketing to operations. We should look beyond our current positions and consider what skills we will need for the next job. If your experience is primarily in internal communication, learn how to deal with external media. If you come from a corporate public relations background, spend some time adding depth in a new specialty such as investor relations. I'd look at emerging disciplines such as diversity management that offer strong career tracks. The choices depend on your individual career goals and interests, but the more you build your intellectual capital, the better prepared you'll be for uncertain times.

GG: Do you see a need to develop new skills or areas of expertise that up to now have not been considered a part of the traditional "communication/public relations" role? If so, what areas need to be developed -- or old skills strengthened?

We have to recognize that our entire profession is undergoing a paradigm shift. We have hit the reality wall. Under the old model, we hoped we could make communication so important to every organization that they couldn't cut us loose. To do that, every communicator would have to aspire to be, and perform like, a candidate for the top communication management job. Not all of us have the inclination to do that, not all of us are ready to do that.

We've traditionally viewed the profession as a hierarchical pyramid, with strategic management at the top, and various functions such as employee communication, media relations, or community relations reporting up the chain of command. At IABC, we may have tried to push people up the chain of command to management, whether they wanted to be there or not.

Now, of course, the communication department pyramid is being compressed, just as the organization is. Our focus has to change, from "every communicator must aspire to be a top-level strategist" to "we must develop a core of highly qualified, top-level strategists who work as equal partners with communication tacticians." I visualize the new model for the communication function as a wheel with strategic communication management at the hub, and various practice areas as the spokes. All components of the wheel work as equals to roll the program along. The professional understands the organization's problems and opportunities at the senior management level, advises the CEO, understands tactics, but emphasizes strategy. The "spokes" people are thoroughly knowledgeable in communication tactics and research, understand strategy, but emphasize tactics.

I'm sure we can argue about the shape of the model. The point is we have to make a place for everyone in the field: strategists, tacticians and entry-level people.

GG: Public relations has been taking a bad rap recently. How can we, as communicators, validate our value and improve our images?

Start by taking a look in the mirror. Let's face it, each of us is accountable for upholding the standards of the profession. When we cut corners, shade or bury the truth, promise more than we can deliver, or countenance those who do, we drag down the profession in the eyes of our employers and the public.

We're all aware of some well-publicized controversies in the public relations field in recent years. They have not helped. But I'm convinced it's the more commonplace lapses, like "guaranteeing" a client media coverage, stonewalling employees on developments that may affect their jobs, mass mailing "no news" releases to publications you've never read, or doing spin control rather than facing up to a problem and fixing it -- that add up and do the most damage to our credibility. For IABC's part, we have to do a better job educating our members on professional standards of conduct and not be shy about speaking out against activities that can't meet those standards.

GG: How would you describe your style of leadership?

I like to find smart, energetic people, explain what we're trying to get done, and let them run with it. It is a lot easier to reel people back in rather than drag them behind you. Then I have the time to look at the road ahead, anticipate any twists and turns, and put the potential problems or opportunities in front of the group to solve. I've always viewed IABC as a low-risk laboratory to learn and test management and leadership skills that I can apply on the job.

GG: How has IABC changed since you first became involved?

The membership is much more diverse, in terms of age, experience and geography. IABC has matured along with its members, reflecting their changing professional interests and experiences.

At the time I became involved, IABC was focused primarily on internal communication. Today, internal communication is one of the core disciplines within a broad range of interests under the IABC umbrella. The association includes corporate communicators and public relations agency people, publication editors and publicity experts, marketers and investor relations pros, public affairs practitioners and graphic designers, in other words, all communication disciplines. That's what makes it such a rich and interesting experience.

GG: What changes would you most like to see happen at IABC in the next five years?

I'd like to see IABC become more visible with external audiences such as senior management, who have a big influence over the careers of our members. I think the IABC Research Foundation's "Excellence" study offers us an opportunity for a breakthrough in this area. Speaking of the Foundation, I'd like it to become known around the world for groundbreaking research that helps map the future of the profession. And I would like IABC to do a better job delivering services to members outside the United States and Canada, so we can link up with a broader base of communicators around the world.

GG: What do you see as IABC's major strength?

We have a lot of strengths. We have good programs and services, excellent financial management and a top-notch headquarters staff, probably the best in the association business. But our major strength is IABC's democratic, "family" culture, in which volunteers drive the organization, play a key role in developing and delivering member services, and recruit new members. Volunteers have led this association through an adolescence that was at times difficult and put us on the road to becoming the leading professional association for communicators worldwide.

GG: What do you see as IABC's major weakness?

The flip side of my previous answer. We are very dependent on volunteers to get things done, but with increased work and family commitments, people have less time to get involved. At the same time, IABC has evolved into a very complex system that takes a lot of management attention, and most of that attention has to come from volunteers.

In the short term, we must do a better job of selling the benefits of volunteering as a way to build contacts and management skills. In the long term, that may not be enough. We may have to face up to the fact that the volunteer pool is not big enough to cover all the traditional bases. Then the alternative is to add staff or rethink how IABC delivers member services.

GG: What do you consider IABC's major achievement over the past 10 years?

We successfully navigated the difficult passage from organizational adolescence to adulthood. That passage had several components. We improved the breadth and depth of our membership to reflect the profession's diversity. We put the association on a sound financial footing and developed the tools that allow us to operate in a businesslike manner. We established the IABC Research Foundation and saw it generate groundbreaking research such as the "Velvet Ghetto" and "Excellence" studies. We grew to a network of more than 11,000 members, at a time when most associations' membership stalled or declined. And we set the base for a global professional network in the coming decade.

GG: How do you respond to the communicator whose audience is local or limited to the U.S. about the value of the "I" in IABC?

The globalization of business is a fact. While not all U.S. organizations may be directly affected at present, it's hard to think of a for-profit company, a not-for-profit organization or a government entity that won't feel the impact of global competition, either directly or indirectly, in the coming decade. As I mentioned earlier, we are more likely than not to work for several employers during our careers. Maybe your next employer will be more concerned about global competition than your current one. Or maybe it will be a transnational company. IABC offers a way to meet communicators and add world-class ideas to your professional toolbox.

A cross-pollination of ideas that can also benefit communicators exists, whether they work for a global company or a small firm in the heartland. Take the issue of diversity. In the United States, for example, we are confronted with the challenge of dealing with an increasingly diverse work force and customer base. Europe is in the middle of integrating 800 million people representing myriad cultures, ethnic groups, languages and consumer preferences into one powerful market. I think those of us in the U.S. and Canada can learn a lot about understanding, valuing and gaining from diversity from our European colleagues. Just look them up in your IABC Worldbook directory and give them a call!

GG: As chairman of IABC, how do you plan to direct the association in areas you see as important?

I see our job as threefold: to support our members in tough times, blaze the trail for the profession, and pursue IABC's mission to be the preeminent professional association for business communicators worldwide.

Over the next year, we'll continue to support our members by offering them powerful tools like Strategic Interest Groups and the new PeopleFinders service, which enables members to network with colleagues who share interests or work in the same industry. We will break new ground for the profession as we roll out the results of the "Excellence" study and show how the findings can be applied to help communicators day-to-day on the job. With the "Excellence" study and the products that will flow from it, IABC is emerging as the thought leader among communication associations. And to realize our global potential, we'll start to look at how IABC is organized to serve members outside the U.S. and Canada.

GG: During these difficult times, what do you feel makes association involvement relevant?

It goes back to what I said about building job security. IABC offers the best way I know for communicators to expand their skills, keep up with developments in the profession, and build a network of contacts. You can weave a pretty good safety net out of those threads. One day you're really going to need it, and you'll be glad you invested the time in it.

GG: If you could achieve only one significant thing during your IABC term of office, what would it be?

I'd like to convince communicators that the future of their careers and the profession is in their hands and theirs alone. We have a tremendous opportunity to help our organizations understand and deal with the trends that are literally redrawing the map of the world. Few people are better positioned than communicators to be the trend spotters, strategic advisors to management, and, most important, the people who interpret the trends to employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders. If we don't take advantage of this golden opportunity, there are plenty of non-communicators who will.

George McGrath is a senior counselor at Osgood Global Group. He was formerly a senior vice president at Carl Byoir & Associates, and before that spent six years at Hill and Knowlton where he was a vice president and unit manager. He started his career in corporate communication at Saks Fifth Avenue.

He is a specialist in corporate positioning, financial and investor relations and crisis communication and also has directed strategic marketing programs for clients in various fields ranging from advanced technology to airlines to retail.

McGrath holds a bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a certificate in management practices from New York University. He is listed in the 1992 edition of "Who's Who Among Rising Young Americans."

Gloria Gordon is editor, Communication World.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators
Author:Gordon, Gloria
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:2695
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