The International Assn. of Business Communicators, faced with an accreditation program (ABC) that loses money and is little-used, has proposed a two-tier “certification” process that would employ computer testing and require renewal every three years.

Those with eight years of experience would be “CCPs” (Certified Communications Professional) and those with 15 years would be “CSCPs” (Certified Strategic Communications Professional). Fees are not yet set but the current process costs $500.

This proposal plus the firing of 16 of the 32 h.q. staffers and the refusal of leaders and staff to provide current financial information are fueling a discussion on a LinkedIn site that had drawn 275 postings as of Jan. 13.

Consultant Aaron Heinrich, formerly at Shift Communications and Ketchum, who is acting as spokesperson, says IABC “can’t” reveal any financials until they are reviewed by the board in June.

He means IABC “won’t” reveal the information. IABC is steeped in a culture of staff domination and concealment about its finances that almost bankrupted it twice (2000 and the mid-1980s).

The latest IABC IRS Form 990 available to members or others on GuideStar is for 2010. IABC does not post its 990s on its website although the Independent Sector (500 non-profits) urges non-profits to do that. IS says “Transparency is essential to earn the public’s trust.”

Neither IABC nor the PR Society of America (the “Society”) have earned the GuideStar Exchange Seal which is given to non-profits that have “updated their reports to the fullest, sharing all required fields.”

GuideStar provides financial statements of 1.9 million non-profits, including IRS Form 990s, for public inspection at no charge. It champions disclosure as something owed to the public by non-profits for their tax-free status.

Besides failing to report fully to members and the public, according to GuideStar, both IABC and the Society have failed to provide an “Impact Statement” describing how they serve the public.

Society Switched to Computer Exam

The Society, faced with a similar problem of low turnout for accreditation and high costs (loss of $2.9 million from 1988-2002) switched to a computer test in 2003. However, it has seen the average number of new Society APRs dip to 136 in the nine years to June 30, 2012 from 274 in the previous ten. Applicants pay $410.

IABC accreditation chair Gloria Walker, who is based in the U.K., said that credentialing consultant Michael Hamm of Albuquerque has advised IABC that organizations are “accredited” and individuals receive “certificates.” She said research last summer among ABCs showed support for a two-tiered system.

Concept Is Attacked on LinkedIn

The certificate concept came under attack in a LinkedIn discussion group where member Michael Sponhour said, “It looks like a way for IABC to make money and goad people into attending events and working for chapters.” Tom Hicks asked, “Is this a joke? This in place of a portfolio review and grueling 4.5-hour exam with an oral component?…they might as well print the certificates on soft, perforated paper so they will at least be good for something.”

Many LinkedIn participants have criticized leaders and staff for not participating in the dialogue or answering questions.

Chair Kerby Meyers had made two postings while there were none from executive director Christopher Sorek.

British Influence Evident

The focus on credentialing as opposed to disclosure shows the influence of the U.K. on IABC.

Sorek, although born in Michigan and a graduate of Michigan State, has been working abroad since 2001 including the last six years in the U.K. (De Beers diamonds from 2006-08 and Drinkaware non-profit group from 2008-12).

Before that he was with SAP AG software company in Germany (2004-06) and the Int’l Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva (2001-04). He was an SVP at Cohn & Wolfe in New York from 1998-2001 and before that with Ogilvy PR Worldwide from 1987-2000, heading offices in Taiwan and Singapore.

Sorek and Meyers, discussing credentialing on a teleconference Dec. 19, said IABC has “talked” about the subject with both the Chartered Institute of PR of the U.K. and the Society.

IPR Won “Chartered” Status

CIPR, after decades of trying, in 2005 won a charter from the Privy Council of the U.K., giving it the right to put “Chartered” at the beginning of its name.

CIPR leaders were ecstatic, 2005 president Chris Genasi calling it a “milestone for the Institute and PR Industry.”

Judith Phair, 2005 Society chair, spoke to CIPR in London June 14, 2005 and called the new status “a truly wonderful achievement … an extraordinarily positive move that shows the influential and important role the PR plays in business and society in the U.K.”

Critics, however, included Roy Hattersley, a member of the Council and former government official. He wrote on the Guardian Unlimited website that the Council is associated with “two peculiarly English diseases—the belief that association with the sovereign reinforces authority and the conviction that antiquity increases respect.”

The Council, made up of lords, dukes, barons and earls, was called a “danger to democracy” and its meetings “shrouded in secrecy” but concerned “only with trivia.”

CIPR members can say they belong to a “chartered” organization but cannot say they themselves are “chartered.”

Lawyers Warn about “Credentialing”

IABC is focusing on credentials when it has been warned twice by the American Society of Assn. Executives that groups that “certify” or “accredit” members invite legal actions if users of the services become dissatisfied.

This was advice in an 87-page report prepared for IABC by the ASAE in 1980. It was repeated in a 21-page report given to the ASAE at a meeting Dec. 5-7, 2000 in Indianapolis by Robert M. Portman, partner of Jenner & Block.

He said associations are “particularly vulnerable to antitrust attack because they are considered combinations of potential competitors.” They are not to hold out their members as better than non-members, he said. Groups must be aware of Federal Trade Commission enforcement policies he added.

FTC in 1977 forced the Society to remove two anti-competitive articles from its Code of Ethics.

IABC’s Problem Is Concealment

IABC members are victims of a classic PR tool—misdirection.

They are talking about topics such as credentialing, digitizing, marketing strategy and awards when they should be talking about the concentration of power at h.q. caused by a non-functioning board and a governance setup that has gone south.

The 1980 study also concluded that the IABC board of about 24 was a fiction. “The true role of the board is delegated entirely to the executive director with a provision for only general supervision,” it said.

Rank-and-file members lost one of their voices in 2000 when the House of Delegates (similar to the Assembly of the Society) gave up its power to set dues. The House of Delegates has ceased to exist.

There was an unexpected “shortfall” of $200,000 that year. Payments to chapters were halted, hiring and travel spending were reduced, the annual printed directory of members was permanently cancelled and publication of the December/January Communication World was delayed.

Website Initiative Flopped

IABC in the late 1990s embarked on an ambitious goal of having its own business news website, “TalkingBusinessNow,” an endeavor that cost $1 million and resulted in severe financial squeeze in 2000. Elizabeth Allan, who had the titles of president and CEO, quit in December, admitting IABC had not reconciled the banking statement. CFO Sherm Smith had quit suddenly in March.

It was a four-star mess.

IABC, as approved by Deloitte & Touche, had put out a truncated audit for 1999 that concealed $398,775 for “web development.” This and other figures came out following complaints by the members and the O’Dwyer Co. IABC member and internet specialist Shel Holtz was among those working on TBN. He was paid $83,330 for the first ten months of 2000 when he was also working as a replacement for the VP of communications. The program was suspended in 2000. IBM and Nine Dots were also consultants on the project. It still needed another $400,000 to get off the ground.

It was to have focused “on business solutions that communications strategy can provide.” Content was to be reputation/brand management; mergers and acquisitions; recruitment and retention of employees, and technology and its effect on “how we communicate.”

It was to cover “current business news with a communications twist, updated daily” and provide “commentary on the news of the day from renowned experts who take a communications angle.” There was also to be “articles, research, current best practices, knowledge products” and other resources.

Member Lou Williams, who became temporary staff head in 2001 after Allan left, criticized her leadership in a talk to the ASAE Aug. 17-20, 2002. He called TBN “foolish” and “a pipedream.”

Ex-Staffer Launched $1M Lawsuit

Allan, a 17-year IABC staffer, said this broke a contract under which no staffers or leaders were to criticize her. She sued Wiliams for $1 million in damages and also named IABC and 20 employees on charges of breach of contract, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

IABC replied that Allan’s conduct was the “sole and proximate cause” of the financial problems; that remarks in the William’s speech about the problems at IABC were “true”; that the statute of limitations barred any action by Allan, and that Allan had waived her rights to sue.

IABC enacted a blackout on the suit, barring discussion on MemberSpeak. No press release on it was ever issued.

A voluminous court record resulted as 77 motions were filed at one point, indicating an especially bitter dispute. A settlement was reached that involved minimal payment by Williams.

The O’Dwyer Co. noted mention of a “lawsuit” in the 2003 audit. IABC staffers refused to say what it was but a search of San Francisco court records discovered it. Initial filing was May 1, 2003.

“Lack of transparency” hurts U.S. says Atlantic

The U.S. financial crisis of 2008 “had many causes—too much borrowing, foolish investments, misguided regulation—but at its core, the panic resulted from a lack of transparency,” says an article in the Jan./Feb. Atlantic.

The two largest U.S. PR organizations, with about 37,000 regular members and 11,000 student members, should be models of transparency rather than the opposite. They should be setting a good example for PR people, not a bad one.