While most industry associations have spent the last two years watching their ranks diminish, Amanda Brewer has focused on keeping her members informed.
The International Assocation of Business Communicators (IABC) has many chapters around the world, but none as big as Toronto’s, which boasts
approximately 1,400 active members. The second largest, in the United States, has less than 500.
“”No one really understands why we are (the largest),”” Brewer admits. “”You can come on board as an IABC member as a student and stay on board until retirement.””
The IABC regularly puts on seminars with guests speakers both local and outside Toronto (see the story on Bill Carney in this issue of Pipeline). The goal, according to Brewer, is to help business communicators develop the metrics that will demonstrate their value to the organizations that employ them.
“”Sometimes it can be trickier to benchmark, because sometimes it can be not as concrete in terms of numbers,”” she says.
Pipeline recently spoke with Brewer about the buzz around IABC.
Pipeline: What are members talking about? What’s the biggest issues of concern?
Amanda Brewer: I guess one of the biggest ongoing challenges for someone who practices public relations or corporate communications is still a bit of client education in terms of informing and educating about exactly what their role is and the services they can provide. I attended a think-tank recently — they’re organized by IABC Toronto twice a year and we debate issues within the association and within the industry — and what I’m still hearing a lot of is the need to get a seat at the table for public relations at a fairly senior level in organizations. A lot of professionals in this industry are involved in creating communications strategies around business initiatives, but there’s still always the perception from the point of view of a manager that, “”Well, if I had five more minutes, I could handle the communications.””
Pipeline: Does it become any easier if you occupy a more dual role of marketing/communications?
AB: It’s a trickier one to answer, only because in so many organizations they’re very separate functions. I’ve worked in organizations where they’ve been separate and I’ve worked in organizations where they’ve been part of the same department, and certainly when you’re a very product-driven company, it helps tremendously to also be on top of what the marketing strategies are and helping to craft those business plans. In other industries where you’re not so product-driven, they tend to be very separate departments.
Pipeline: One of the big trends in business this year is around transparency. Although that’s usually in reference to financial reporting, how do you think that will affect corporate communications?
AB: Some of the biggest issues that professional communicators are dealing with this year are around governance and full disclosure. Especially if you’re listed on the TSX, if you’re intra-listed between NYSE and the TSX, then certainly that is an issue that will occupy a large part of your time. You don’t even need to be someone whose full-time job is investor relations. That applies to anyone who handles corporate communications, not just being up to speed on the Sarbanes-Oxley rules for the States but just in terms of watching the trend here in Canada, which seems to be moving more and more towards greater transparency.
Pipeline: If buy-in from senior managers is so difficult to get from corporate communications people, how does that affect their likelihood to make use of PR agencies?
AB: I don’t see the role of agencies completely going away, no. Only because companies vary in their use of in-house versus agencies. This is a big generalization, but I think in any company you are going to find someone doing some sort of communications work, although the level at which the person holds that title or how high that title goes is going to vary from company to company. I’m not speaking universality that buy-in is hard to get; it’s just that it still does exist. The industry has come a long way even in the last decade, and there are a lot of CEOs that recognize the importance of having not just good internal communications but external. So not just with investors but with the community, with the media, your stakeholders.
But getting back to agencies, I think the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of communications departments that have so much on their plates that they do reach out to agencies. I see agencies continue to play a very strong role in either helping companies that just can’t handle all the work, or in terms of acting as consultants on issues.
Pipeline: It seems like internal communicators take the lead on crisis management projects. We certainly saw that during the Aug. 14 blackout.
AB: Absolutely, or even if you go back a bit earlier and think of the SARS crisis. I was working at Noranda when Sept. 11 happened, and Noranda’s parent company is Brascan, and a sister company owned by Brascan is Brookfield. At the time Brookfield was the owner of several properties right across the street from the World Trade Center. It just showed the need to have an excellent crisis communications plan developed ahead of time so that when things like SARS or catastrophes like the terrorist attacks happen, you can execute at a moment’s notice. That way you’re not left scrambling, wondering, “”Who is the first person I should be calling?””
Pipeline: After Sept. 11 and as part of the economic slump, communications were among the first areas where headcount was reduced. Are you seeing a bounce back?
AB: Speaking only from the point of job postings and job availability, yes. The industry from that point of view does seem to have recovered, just by virtue of the sheer fact of the number of headhunters out there. But I also think it was a lesson to a lot of companies in terms of the need for a very strong internal communications program. From that end it’s about investor confidence and making sure that shareholders are feeling well taken care of and that there’s a good return on their equity.