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Pro Bono Perspectives: IABC Just Doesn’t Get It

business communications, communications pros, Daria Steigman, IABC, Marketing, Pr, PR industry, Pro bono, pro bono PR, Public relations, RFP response, Steigman CommunicationsBy Daria Steigman, Founder, Steigman Communications

Hey PR, IABC wants you to work for free.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the association that represents PR and marketing professionals, recently issued a request for proposals for free content marketing support for its annual conference. The ask:

“We require a small communication task force/editorial team willing to commit around 10-15 working days on a pro bono basis [emphasis added] before, during and after the event.”

This is so wrong.

Several communications pros quickly weighed in on Twitter; I have heard from others privately who share similar concerns. Greg Brooks, West Third Group, tweeted, “Hey, IABC, any irony in an RFP asking comms pros to work your annual event for free?” Alison Kenney, KPR Communications, tweeted, “Why would IABC issue an RFP for pro bono support to promote its conference? Doesn’t it respect marketing talent?”

Stu Opperman, Impact Players, tweeted that “if accomplishing your goals is dependent on PR pros working for free, you need a better strategy.” He also tweeted that “it also devalues the skills, expertise, relationships, and time of PR pros, sending a bad message about [our] worth.”

You can’t “pick my brain.”

IABC shouldn’t be picking our collective brains—or our pockets. As an industry association, IABC should understand the role of smart, savvy business communications. It should be promoting the value of its practitioner members, not devaluing our worth by suggesting that we give away our expertise. By asking practitioners to work for free, the organization is treating the work as a worthless commodity.

Moreover, IABC has “valued” the work at $20,000 in “advertising, event registration, and event sponsorship benefits.” That works out to $1,333.33 per day for 15 days. Break it down further, and IABC has de facto low-balled the deliverables while devaluing the education and know-how that it takes to do this work well. This contributes to the content marketing “race to the bottom” that prizes quantity and the imperative to have fresh content on a regular basis.

Pro bono wasn’t meant for this.

The IABC chair responded to these concerns with a defense of the organization’s position. Chair Michael Ambjorn wrote that “just like lawyers, accountants, and other professionals, communicators also sometimes take on pro bono briefs for organizations and causes they support. A recent practical example is the work on our rebrand – a collaboration of and by global practitioners, generously supported by Arcas Advertising.”

IABC is conflating two very different things.

Of course PR pros give back to their industry. As an IABC member, I spent six years on my local chapter board. I have also volunteered my time at other levels of the organization, garnering new friends and a deep and wide network of colleagues as a result. But this was an investment in my business—not a pro bono project.

Lawyers don’t help other lawyers for free; they typically donate their time to help indigent clients. Similarly, marketing pros don’t typically help other marketers pro bono. Rather, many communications professionals donate their expertise to advise nonprofits and cause-based organizations that could not otherwise afford to pay for their services. A great example of that is Washington Women in Public Relations, an organization whose members annually donate time and expertise to help support local charities. WWPR’s latest pro bono client is Bright Beginnings, a center for homeless children. This is a far cry from donating time to support a conference that is “an important revenue-generating opportunity for the organization.”

I have long been an advocate for both IABC and my profession. Usually, the two go hand-in-hand. But this time IABC just doesn’t get it.

Rather than promoting the profession, IABC’s actions threaten to erode our value. And that’s just wrong.

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