Michael Ambjorn – IABC AGM Speech

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Michael Ambjorn’s speech as new Chair of IABC 2015-16

Things have been interesting recently. That’s what happens when you hit a mid-life crisis. Things go a bit haywire. IABC has been in a full-blown mid-life crisis. So, should we go off and get ourselves a Porsche?

Luckily, that’s not on the cards. It is easy to lose confidence. As the hardnosed will tell us: never waste a crisis. And as an old British bulldog once said: ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’. Make something of it. Use it to take stock, prioritise. Fix. Set things up again for the future. Stronger. Better. Aligned and with a clear direction.

That’s hard though when you’re knocked for six. A famous boxer once said: ‘Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face’. We had a triple blow: a global recession, a changing market, an out-dated infrastructure.

‘We’ve been fixing to get ready’ as the Texans might say, and today I want to talk about where we are on that journey – and where we can go next if you want to.

Now before we dive into that, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here on the stage. Who’s this fast-talking espresso-addict? Well, for starters, correlation does not necessarily mean causation and I hate to admit that I’ve been fast-talking long before I learnt how to make a decent espresso – nevertheless, a couple of extra shots certainly does not make it better. So if I get carried away, please do signal me to slow down.

I’ve got something to say. It is about the future of our profession. It is about the future of our association. It is about our future. It is about you. And me. Those who have heard me speak before will have heard me say: that the intersect between the two are the sweet spot of action. That’s where the interesting things happen. That’s where the good stories come from. You are in this room right now because you’re a leader.

You can make a difference to the person next to you, to a fellow leader, to the association and ultimately the profession – and society. You are uniquely positioned to impact the world. If you want to. If you will give me your ears for a few minutes, I will propose a way for how we can do it together.

Before that I want to tell you a story. It is a personal story – it starts in the battleship-grey headquarters of a large corporation. I’ve worked at a few; I’ve also run a small foundation; headed up a 260 year old Fellowship focused on social change – and these days I help boards and teams establish, align and execute purpose-driven comms and engagement strategy.

This corporate. Imagine you’re at this HQ building. You have a brief moment between conference calls. That’s when you get the call. That’s when a well-established industry leader calls you and says: ‘you’re it.’

I need you to do one more thing.’ Don’t worry about the fact that you’re at that time commuting every three weeks to Chicago, from London. Leading a team spanning four continents. Standing there you’re told: Don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about that at all. Because you need to run something. Something for the association. Something that will advance the profession. It won’t be easy. But you will enjoy it. And be better for it.

Standing there in that battleship-grey headquarter building with low ceilings – too far from daylight really; and coffee really unworthy of consumption although always served with a smile – that’s when you, against logic, common sense or indeed sanity, take something more on. Whilst the details might be different, I am sure many of you have had the same experience. You get tapped. You step up. You deliver.

That was my first. It wasn’t my last. Why do we do it? I can tell you why I do it:

  • I believe that in today’s world, communication can be a force for good.
  • I believe that we have a unique way of connecting people for this purpose – a certain je ne sais quois – which I haven’t seen in any other organisation that spans the world like this organisation does.

And I know: that with thousands of members worldwide, across diverse industries, sectors and disciplines, this is a community alive with knowledge. Alive with experience. Alive with ideas. All of which are freely exchanged. A community I love being part of – and people I can’t do without.

A community that has a real and tangible impact. It is a force for good – through the Global Standard for the Communication Profession, our Code of Ethics, our educational offerings, our mentoring, our leadership development. I could go on. Most of all though, for me: it is about the connection – and the connections – that it enables. Because it is in that intersect the magic happens. The sweet spot of action.

Let’s be clear – the ask that was made, the ask to step up, was based on social capital – it was based on a connection. A connection who could vividly paint the possibility of experience ahead. I’ve seen it in action. Again and again. I can’t count the amount of times when I have been up against it with a tough comms challenge – or a question from a mentee, perhaps outside my own field of comms strategy and facilitation, that I could not answer and have received emergency assistance from many a generous colleague in this organisation – and vice versa.

You know who you are. Thank you. I will always endeavour to do the same for you. Because there’s a u in endeavour.

Now let’s take stock. The smoke has not entirely cleared. Some will in fact say that we’re on a burning platform. One only we can fix. What’s happening?

These days I pay my own way for membership, yet when I joined, membership was an employer-provided benefit. For me; for many. The CFOs of the world removed that budget line. It isn’t coming back. Meanwhile on the interwebs indirect competitors are eating our audience for breakfast:  $20 for a copy of Harvard Business Review? Why pay, you can read five articles a month for free… $50 bucks for an event? Curate your own crowd using Meetup.com – there are thousands of if not hundreds of thousands of groups out there.

Competition is fierce.How many of you have used Uber or AirBnB? We’re not the only ones being disrupted. I know times have been hard. It hasn’t been a bed of roses. This I know. But you are nothing if not resilient. Now, it is not surprising that the field is busier than ever – Google tells me that there are:  2,500,000 searches for a communications strategy every month,  140,000 of those are looking for comms skills,  120,000 are looking for a coms conference…and if our membership grew at the rate of our LinkedIn group – now well past the 40,000 mark, we’d have fourfold the resources we have now.
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Could HR + PR = parity in pay?

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Does the PR industry lack HR skills and is this contributing to the gender pay gap?

Earlier this year the Chartered Institute of Public Relations published the results of its State of the Profession Survey.

It established that one of the top issues the industry faces is the gender pay gap.

A salary discrepancy of £8,483 in favour of men cannot be explained by any other factor such as length of service, seniority, parenthood, or a higher prevalence of part-time work among women.

It’s a sobering thought when over two-thirds of practitioners in the profession are female. The CIPR has committed to tackling the issue head on through a four point plan, which sets out what the Institute intends to do to help employers narrow the pay gap going forwards.

It can’t happen quickly enough.

Not a women’s issue but an issue of how well you run your business

This Autumn the CIPR will publish the results of research that’s being undertaken on people and performance management within the PR industry.
The survey of PR employers looks at which general practices are in place within member organisations to define pay at a senior and junior level and who is responsible for this.

From work carried out to date, such as round table events with a variety of industry practitioners including freelancers, SME owner-managers, in house practitioners, agency players, academics and recruitment specialists, there is a clear indication of a potential skills gap in terms of the human resources function.

While it’s true this wouldn’t universally apply, for example where public sector and larger organisations are concerned, the CIPR wants to know more broadly if this is actually the case.

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Changing the Landscape: Informing the Future

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Over 1,000 communicators from across the globe gathered at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in San Francisco this week for the IABC World Conference 2015. Gloria Lombardi reviews.

This week I flew from the UK to California. I rented one of the Airbnb apartments in the Bay area, rideshared with Lyft, drank coffees Americano from Starbucks and had lunches at Whole Foods Market. This year’s IABC World Conference 2015 couldn’t have a better theme, ‘Changing the Landscape: Informing the Future’.

More than 1,000 attendees and a variety of speakers gathered from across the globe to explore new ways of communicating, living and working. With over 80 sessions to choose from, not one day went by that I didn’t feel I could make interesting connections and learn something new.

The world began and will end with a story

For IABC APAC Director and Blogger Subhamoy Das, stories are the scaffoldings of business communications, but also of life. “We all live our lives through stories. We make sense of our world and our place in it through stories!”

As American novelist Reynolds Price once said: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo Sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”

After all, plenty of scientific studies have addressed the impact of stories on the brain. For example, the brain releases dopamine into the system when it experiences an emotionally charged event, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy. A story also activates parts in the brain that allows the listener to turn that story in to their own ideas and experience thanks to a process called neural coupling. Another interesting field of research is around the cortex activity and how well told narratives switch on our senses, motions, and feelings.

But, anatomy aside, why are stories so important to communicators? Das’s answer is fivefold:

“Storytelling is the new differentiator; stories provide simulation – knowledge to act; stories provide inspiration – motivation to act; credible ideas make people believe; emotional ideas make people act.”

If you think that this is just a pile of wood, think again. Das cited a study sourced by One Spot, which indicates that 92% of consumers want brands to make ads that feel like a story. On this premise, Chip Heath & Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick‘ can be a useful read, which explores six principles of sticky ideas: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories.

However, some of today’s most innovative stories are co-created – people tell their own stories, which are more trustworthy than any official company release. In the context of work, having staff who authentically share their narratives becomes a powerful means for employee advocacy.  Read more

The future is now

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This is a recap of Communication Futures event hosted by IABC UK

The future does not yet exist. But we still have to plan for it. That was the theme of last week’s IABC’s excellent seminar on the future of communications hosted and designed by Susan Walker (@suseew) where we tried to answer these questions:

  • Will communicators have to rethink their role?
  • How is the world of work likely to change?
  • Can we use new techniques to understand how people think?
  • Do we need to extend telling important stories across multiple platforms and formats?
  • What developments can we expect from social media and technology?

From the not-so-new magic of transmedia campaigns to operating in a volatile environment, Susan and her A-list speakers led us in a journey towards what our profession can and should be doing to help the organizations we work for.

Who said what…
Lucy Adams (@lucyatfirehouse) is a strong believer in the potential of communication if it is focused for the individual and that HR and communication functions need to work together more closely.

Adrian Wooldridge (@adwooldridge) management editor of the Economist challenged us as communicators with a hard look at the future based on his book “The Great Disruption” which included facts and figures like the research which revealed employee loyalty had halved. In this volatile world, the employee’s first loyalty is to themselves.

Read Silvia Cambie’s interesting reflection on his talk – Communicating in disruptive times.

Hillary Scarlet (@Hilary Scarlett) explained the power of neuroscience and why we react most strongly to threats based on our brains inherited from early man escaping tigers on the savannah.

Steve Spence from Transmedia Storytelling empathised why we need to think of a range of media to tell the story effectively and cannot depend on just one channel.

Silvia Cambie (@silviacambie) and Leslie Crook (@LAC999) gave us their views and predictions of what social media might be in the future. Leslie also shared her social media framework and gave us a preview of John Stepper’s (@johnstepper) working out loud concept. His book is coming out in the fall so keep en eye out!
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