I should warn readers in advance that this column is going to be a bit of a rant because I am very frustrated by many of my peers. If you ask people why they join a communications/PR association, many of the top answers include networking (usually number 1), career development and following best practice. Yet the majority of people do not attend events, never proactively contact another member and don’t even tap into the online resources. When asked why, the response is almost universally: “I haven’t got time.”
We all are faced with a multiplicity of demands on our time, and it is a fact that the number of hours in a day is limited. But have you ever noticed how the top professionals whom you really admire seem to get an impossible amount done? If you understand the importance of tapping into the power of your association, it is amazing what you can find time for. The reason is simple, rather than being an add-on that will take additional time, being an engaged member makes you better at your job and improves your career prospects, which are two really motivating reasons to find time. In fact, they may save you a lot of time.
So let’s look at a couple of activities and the related benefits.
Somewhere along the line the misconception grew that having a fat “little black book” of contacts was the sign of a great networker. Poppycock! Let me quote two communicators I admire a lot. In a controversial but brilliant presentation explaining why France has been losing influence in European decision-making, Philippe Maze-Sencier, currently managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Paris office, urged trade association execs from France to “soigner ses relations (et non pas ses contacts)” [develop relationships, not contact lists]. Barb Gibson, ABC, Founder and President of SpokesComm and the current international Chair of IABC, advises, “Work for your network…The most powerful network is the one that is made up of people who owe you favours.” Or in more Biblical terms: so ye sow, so shall ye reap. There are few things I find more fatiguing than people whose idea of networking is only asking for help, jobs etc. Be a resource. Demonstrate your value. Show, don’t tell. Apply the same professionals standards to the PR of your personal brand as you would at work.
Professional development and involvement
Shortly after I joined IABC (many years ago), I attended a lunch hosted by my chapter board (at that time IABC Belgium) for new members. The board member next to me (Peter Whippy of EuroChlor) asked me what I thought of IABC so far. “To be honest,” I replied, “I find it awfully focused on corporations.” I then explained that as a young association communicator (and one who did not do a degree in communications), I was finding it hard to translate that material into something I could use. Not even three hours later, Peter senting an e-mail that began something like “Kristen, I’d like to invite you to help us set up a new special interest group for communicators working for confederations, associations and federations…” Lesson 1 regarding associations: they are what the members make them. I accepted Peter’s challenge and have never stopped being an association champion since.
With regard to blogs, I first started looking at them because of the raging debates between the “e-vangelists” and the less experimental members. While I didn’t dismiss blogs out of hand, I wasn’t very convinced by their ROI. But I started to play with them so that I could at least understand how the technology works and what it can (and can’t offer). Today I can provide a more nuanced perspective between Blogs the Hype and Blogs the Technology. I’m a big fan of the technology because I’ve seen how often it is problematic for organizations to keep websites current. Blog technology is great because you don’t need special software, you can pretty much use one if you can use a word processor, and a team of people can contribute, thus overcoming the gatekeeper/bottleneck issue. For a blog like PR Conversations, the benefits I receive include participating in some thought-provoking debates that help me learn and grow, raising my professional profile and drawing attention to events, organizations and information that I am passionate about. There’s some clear ROI there. Blogs can be easy to use bulletin boards too. Since IABC opened its eXchange platform to members, IABC France has created a dedicated job page allowing its members to post job ads and receive them in real time — no delays, no bottlenecks… And then my personal blog allows me to share little vignettes of my life with family and friends scattered all over the globe. My blog is even linked to my brother’s (in Botswana) to make the family’s attempts to keep up with us that much easier. If I hadn’t taken the time to start playing with the format, I never would have seen its potential.
Working for a trade association, I often have to be a mistress-of-all-trades, unlike communicators in big organizations who specialize. For me, it only makes sense when I take on a new task to start with research. Why re-invent the wheel and lose precious times on mistakes that diminish quality when you could leap-frog over those stages? Imagine if your family doctor said, “I’ve decided to specialize in cardiovascular disease, but I don’t have time to read the medical literature before getting started.” Eek!
Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about the people who don’t take advantage of their professional association. Maybe I should thank them. In my experience, the people who are most engaged and most active are among the most impressive professionals I know (and also the most easily employable). So maybe I should just continue slogging away at learning something new every day with the goal of one day reaching the level of the people who inspire me. The people who “don’t have time” to invest in their personal and professional development will probably have an abundance when their careers stall because they haven’t taken the time to keep evolving. To use an Olympic metaphor, how can you expect to compete with athletes who are training regularly if you stopped exercising twenty years ago?