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The mandatory pre-conference blog post and social update: #IABC19 Edition

I thought about a lot of #comms things on the way to Vancouver ahead of #IABC19 and this is my jetlag-fuelled take on why this is a crucial time for Communication Professionals.

It’s WCE. World Conference Eve. Already this week, fellow airline passengers from all parts of the globe have been subjected to communication professionals explaining their job and answering questions – the airline seat/UBER pitch is longer than the elevator pitch – as they wended or in some cases still wend their way to Vancouver for IABC’s annual tribal reunion.

In Vancouver, it’s 11.22pm Friday as I begin to write this, but back home in Australia it’s already Saturday at 3.52pm. I travelled back in time almost a full day as a result of crossing the International Date Line. Maybe I am feeling retrospective as a result.

Time accelerates as we age. I’m the same age as IABC, and I know with the number of changes I’ve experienced in the past year (from personal, professional and purpose perspectives) that sometimes, time moves a little too fast to allow the list to ever be entirely crossed off. So, here we are in June, the night before the Biggest Gathering Of People Who Do What I Do (henceforth called ‘the comms tribe’) and I am writing a blog post because…well, because you can’t not have something to show. It’s WC, people!

IABC World Conference is an interesting wormhole that brings the past, the present and the future together along with the comms tribe. It is the fire that we gather around to tell the stories that make sense of our professional world: Where did we come from, where are we going, why am I here?

IABC is approaching it’s 50th year as an organisation in 2020, with roots going back much further than that. The business of communication is not new. Here’s a paradox, though. While the practice becomes professionalised, new research is developed, the technologies both of communication and of the businesses we seek to improve continue to develop. And yet, the core challenges of the communication profession often seem inscrutable, constant and wicked:

Information is not communication.

While the former grows meta-exponentially, often fuelled by the activities and technologies of ‘communications’ we see greater problems than ever in terms of facilitating shared meaning. This isn’t a new problem.

There’s more noise than signal.

Ok, we know the sender-receiver model was talking about technology and not about people so it’s a very flawed way of viewing human communication. But, as a metaphor, it is truer now than ever.

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Internet Minute 2009

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Internet minute 2019.

Emotion trumps fact.

Communicating things that matter in a way that matters is really hard work. Complexity is inevitable. And it’s increasingly hard to fight misinformation because of the aforementioned noise, biases, bubbles and shareability.

Bad information = shareable. Good information = lost in the noise.

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Not a fake tweet.

Everyone and everything communicates.

Our species has been communicating for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a little arrogant of us as communication professionals to rock up at well after 11.59pm on the evolutionary clock and think we’re suddenly going to be in charge. But our career-ancestors, the shaman and the priests, the academics and the jesters, the town-criers and the cave painters, the scribes and the documenters – the leaders – have been doing this much longer than we have, and in very few cases have they ‘got everyone on the same page’. At best, they’ve been able to create resonance, or motivate, or inspire or lead. At worst, they’ve been propagandists or censors, Inquisitors and snake-oil sellers. I’ve gone on a tangent, but a relevant one. At the worst points have they ‘controlled the story’ or ‘silver-lined’ it, neither of which promotes understanding and shared meaning. If we think we are in the business of control, we have to ask which of those professional columns we will be in when the AIs machine-learn the history of communication somewhere shortly down the path.

Which leads to another wicked problem.

Communications technology has been the tail wagging our collective dog.

Pretty much since Gutenberg.

A quick review of any of the literature of the past 50 years of communication practices shows that what we do has been play catch-up with channels as communication vehicles as they are developed largely by people who are not human-communication professionals. Do any of us want to go through the 2010s retrofitting ESNs to corporate cultures because IT got a bulk license when they did the infrastructure deal? No. But here’s where we have learned. There are multiple current studies and approaches being developed by communication leaders and academics dealing with the next big technological wave: AI and what it means for communication, business and society.

(For all the issues with the World Economic Forum, Davos can at least be relied upon to make sexy the issues that communicators strive to educate their businesses and clients for the preceding three to five years.)

It’s hard but we got this.

Bear with me. I know this got dystopian and at the moment seems pretty far from an inspirational post. There’s no “15 seconds of a baby elephant chasing geese” distraction in this blog.

Well, one GIF maybe.  But only to sustain us to the end of the story.

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Ok, back in the room. Focus people.

Because we – as people who are employed by business, governments, lobby groups, public organisations to use our knowledge, skills and profession to achieve outcomes that wouldn’t be as effective without us – have a pretty competitive and tough job at the moment. We’re fighting disinformation, tech change, other professional disciplines who don’t wait for permission.

The ‘where did we come from…’ is different for many communicators. You know on Survivor, when they merge tribes? Communication as a profession is still at that stage when Jeff gets everyone to throw their buffs in the fire. (Best Jeff Pobst voice: There is no internal comms tribe, no external comms tribe, no brand tribe, there is just Professional Communication.)

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But we’re a bit ahead of Survivor contestants. We have our Global Standard and Code of Ethics to guide us. Which is exactly why coming back to the cave of #IABC19* is so important. I am so excited about what I will hear over the next few days.

The problems faced by the tribe will be near-universal. Wherever they are. Whatever the maturity of the organizations and industries they support. Someone else will have felt that pain. But someone else will also have found a different way, using the approaches and skills and disciplines we have collectively arrived at.

One example recently I witnessed was a panel presentation at the Australian Corporate Affairs Summit (#theCAS) where each panelist cited what was working in their organization, and each type of example was something not new for IC, but that was new to their organisation or sector, and applied with learning and insight. In comms, with professionalisation, we are seeing survival of the fittest practices: those that have had measurable impact.

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In business, we communicate to create change

What do we do? We can take courses, we can join webinars, we can build our skills and stay current. But, communicating with each other, sharing stories, is still the most meaningful way to make sense of it all.

To paraphrase broadcaster and conference speaker and Celeste Headlee from her podcast interview with Dan Gold** a few weeks ago it’s through listening deeply, inquisitively and critically to those stories from all of our #comms tribe that we continue to advance and develop ourselves and the profession.

Happy #IABC19 everyone.

*If not in person then on LinkedIn, or Twitter, with the tag #IABC19.
**Correction. An earlier edition of this post incorrectly called Dan Gold Mike Gold. I think what I meant was ‘Dan Gold, who is great on the MIC…’

Disclosures: In addition to being an independent communication advisor I work with IABC to develop the Corporate Membership offering in the Asia Pacific region. I attended The Corporate Affairs Summit as a representative of IABC APAC, and this is my late homework.