When harassment is hidden behind conference doors.
This article contains references to sexual harassment/assault. If you are healing from your own trauma you may be triggered by this story.
I did not include people's names in this post because I will not publicly shame anyone and I do not wish to provoke an online attack. Change will not be accomplished by projecting shame and provoking defensiveness.
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In the last five years I’ve attended dozens conferences on my own time and dime. It has been a period of tremendous investment in myself and my career and I’m proud of the growth I’ve experienced. I always travel solo but have made many friends that I look forward to catching up with at these events.
In 2016 I attended IABC’s World Conference in New Orleans. For those not in the communication industry, this is THE conference. It’s the largest of its kind and attracts communication professionals from around the world. I had attended this event twice before as a wide-eyed, young communication professional and was wowed by the big names and industry connections.
One of the evening receptions was held at a bowling alley/lounge venue. It was such a fun night: friends and drinks and nachos and lots of cheering for everyone’s terrible bowling form. As the evening wound down, groups of people mingled behind the bowling lanes, trying to decide where we should take the night.
What happened to me next falls somewhere between sexual harassment and sexual assault. I will not provide details other than to say the act was committed by a very well-known and respected person in the industry. No one directly heard or saw what happened. The venue was loud, it was dark and there was really no reason for anyone to pay any particular attention to me being pulled aside. A group of colleagues/friends saw my reaction to it and immediately asked what was wrong. When the man realized others had picked up on what happened, he quickly left the venue.
Embarrassed and uncomfortable, I brushed it off, laughed nervously, and we moved on to the rest of the evening, though my mindset had dramatically changed.
The next morning I couldn’t brush it off. I was still embarrassed and nervous at the thought of running into him at the conference again. The shame was very real...
I shouldn’t have been wearing a dress.
I shouldn’t have been drinking.
I shouldn’t have bowled.
I should have been quieter.
I drew too much attention to myself.
I’m too friendly.
For the next two years I said nothing.
Sometimes I forgot about it. Sometimes I justified it. Sometimes I cried about it. This person was (and still is, to my knowledge) a successful business owner and well-known in my industry. In fact, since 2016 I have received mass marketing emails from his company encouraging me to hire him as a consultant. This person speaks at IABC conferences, has hosted events and has been recognized publicly for his contributions to the organization.
In 2018, a friend who knew of my experience in New Orleans attended World Conference in Montreal where he noticed this person was scheduled to deliver a presentation. At a networking reception they butted heads (figuratively) and my friend called him out on his actions from two years ago. He proceeded to send my friend several emails afterwards, trying to justify what happened back in 2016.
My friend strongly encouraged me to say something to IABC leadership. I resisted at first but agreed he could reach out to the conference MC (who was also an IABC Fellow). During a face-to-face conversation, he dismissed it as simply an unfortunate event.
Out of frustration, my friend reached out to another IABC leader. This conversation, thankfully, was different. Before he could share any details about what happened or disclose any names, she stopped him.
“Oh my god,” she shook her head, “I know who did this.” Her gut feeling was correct. It turns out I wasn’t alone in my experience.
My friend then reached out to the executive director and requested an urgent meeting about an ethical issue. He was told she was busy on her way to the airport and he should make an appointment with her assistant.
As a last resort he reached out to the international executive board, who did take the issue seriously and reached out to me. I had a very emotional conversation with a senior leader who treated me with respect and dignity. I am grateful for her kindness and willingness to listen to what was a very difficult story to share but the call was somewhat bittersweet. Once again, the board member acknowledged she knew exactly who I was talking about before I shared his name.
About a month later I was contacted by someone on the ethics committee. The phone call came without notice in the middle of my workday so I’ll admit I was caught off guard and maybe not as prepared for the conversation as I could have been. We chatted for 10 or 15 minutes and he said it was an important conversation and that IABC was taking it very seriously. I offered to be part of an ethics initiative to lead the change at World Conference. I offered to write, speak, share or do anything else to prevent this from happening again. IABC touts innovation, leadership and above all, ethics. I believed this could be an opportunity for us to pave the way.
Since that call 8 months ago, I have not heard from anyone at IABC in any capacity.
I don’t know what happened to the person who did this to me, though I'm told he is no longer a member. I don’t know how many other people he upset, harassed, or worse.
What has challenged my brain for the last year is this:
Multiple people in leadership positions were aware of this person being a problem for years. And no one said anything.
As I write this, I am attending my first World Conference since the incident and I don’t see his name as a speaker or sponsor. I’m glad the code of ethics was addressed in the opening remarks, albeit administratively. I appreciate these steps, but I see them as minimum requirements.
This experience has fuelled my desire to bring these conversations to the surface and call out unacceptable behaviour. That’s why you’ve seen a new code of ethics at PRSA Connect and a visible call to action. That’s why it was front and centre in the conference app, not buried on a website. That’s why I’m focused on bringing diversity to committees I am a part of. That’s why I go out of my way to introduce myself to younger/newer professionals at after-hours events at conferences. I am doing my part to call attention to these types of situations because if we say nothing they will keep happening.
If you think this has never happened at one of your events I am telling you it has.
I want professional associations to be better and I want our industry to do better. Many of you reading this are colleagues involved in planning conferences, luncheons and events where this type of behaviour can easily go unnoticed. I encourage you to have honest, difficult conversations with your boards and committees so you can lead the change. I want the people at the highest levels of association governance to make changes and dammit, I want accountability.
Most importantly I want the rest of you to know you are not alone.