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Insights from the IABC World Conference 2023: Communication is power. Communicators have power.

22 June 2023

The IABC World Conference in Toronto brought close to 1,000 communications professionals from 34 countries together, and was a timely reminder that communication is not a soft skill. It is a rock-hard skill that, when wielded ethically, has the potential to change and save lives.

Good communications professionals speak inconvenient truths to power, including executives, governments and clients. We are constantly curious, and politely call out bullshit. We ask the right questions of the right people. We seek to understand the ‘outliers’ and lean in to the awkward, uncomfortable work. Because. It. Matters.

Some key insights from the conference that have stuck with me are:

  • Positive change often comes from cultural outliers or ‘shapeshifters’. Zari Parvez, Global Social Media Manager at Duolingo talked about how people who live in two different worlds but don’t fit perfectly in either (such as the children of migrants) are more open to challenging the status quo, taking calculated risks and seizing opportunities.
  • AI is a piece of colonial infrastructure being built by the dominant culture with a vested interest in maintaining current power structures. Shani Gwin, Founder and CEO of pipikwan pêhtâkwan reminded me that AI is dramatically skewed to the detriment of most of us including women, people of colour, First Nations people, people who live outside of major, developed cities, the young and many others. I’m left feeling uneasy. Why should big corporations decide and seal our fate? Why is this not a public conversation? Shani also spoke of the natural law – kindness, sharing, strength and love. Wouldn’t this be a refreshing way to frame public policy decisions?
  • Continuing on with sobering themes, Helio Fred Garcia gave a gripping keynote on How professional communicators can preserve and promote civic order. He said “Disinformation is real. It’s dangerous. It destabilises our society and puts lives at risk. Also … “Those who make you believe absurdities can make people commit atrocities.” Interesting references to Trump in the speech.
  • Dodging accountability makes a strong statement. The low point of the conference for me was when a delegate asked a diplomatically-worded question very clearly meant for PwC’s Managing Director of US and Mexico Internal and External Communication who was part of a panel. Given the unfolding corporate crisis in Australia, which was world news, it was breath-taking to see her literally look the other way and wait for someone else to respond in generic terms about reputation management.
  • There is no substitute for face-to-face connection. The joy of being in noisy rooms with like-minded people brought pure joy. Thank you to Michael Blackburn and the entire IABC team for making it happen and all the people I met and shared time with.
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