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REMEMBER THE CLASSICS of literature and philosophy that you read in your high school and college humanities courses? Remember thinking: Why do I need to know this stuff? I'm reminded of this scenario every fall when as a college professor I meet a new class of freshmen who ask the same thing about the courses they must take in the liberal arts core curriculum of the college. They ask me: "How is this archaic stuff gonna help me in my communication program?" As I prepare to teach another group of freshmen, I've been thinking about an answer to that question.

Robert Fulghum is renowned for his book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." In a similar fashion, you might say that all we really know about communication can be traced back to the classics ... classic communication. I won't bore you with a whole litany of examples, just a handful for fun.

In the world of business communication, you might think of the classics as such practitioners as Edward Bernays, Hadley Cantril, Walter Lippmann -- even Marshall McLuhan. Indeed, these are names that helped to shape and define communication in many a forum. But I'm thinking even farther back. What do Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero have to offer to business communication? You might think that Greek and Latin are dead languages, but classical ideas live on in our companies' and organizations' everyday life. (At this point, my students' eyes usually begin to roll back in their heads, so I tell them a story.)

U.S. humorist Erma Bombeck once quipped that motherhood was the second oldest profession. Public communication or business communication can be traced back just as far, to biblical times. The communication function has been carried out by governments and other institutions since the earliest days of civilization. For as long as public opinion (from both internal and external publics) has been important, communication has been alive and well. In its early stages, business communication was practiced for political influence. Machiavelli recognized the value of manipulating public opinion as an important force for ruling principalities during the Renaissance. The publication and distribution of the Federalist Papers, which led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, have been called "history's finest public relations job."

HOMER & THE ANNUAL REPORT Homer is probably best remembered for his epic poems. The "Iliad" recounts the public deeds of combatants guided by the gods, and the "Odyssey" is the story of a king and his family. The "Iliad" and "Odyssey," both attributed to Homer, are the first recorded epic poems (long verse narratives concerning the deeds of great heroes and gods, recited in high style). It's not a textbook definition, but you have to admit that it does describe what our employers and clients believe the annual report should be: a fabulous narrative that captures all the great deeds of our company over the year, published in high gloss for all the world, or at least all the current and future stakeholders of the company.

PLATO & ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION Plato, probably best remembered for recording the philosophy and teachings of Socrates, provides a number of illustrations of the importance of communication within an organizational setting. Plato reminds communicators that ideas are eternal, perfect and ultimately more real than ordinary things. That smacks of the old communication adage about perceptions being stronger than reality.

In his "Republic," Plato describes an ideal state or organization -- a utopian organization -- managed by a philosopher leader, one who pursues good decision making for the whole of the organization through wise processes. It may sound too good to be true, but in the end it is what most organizations strive for. Of course, my students are usually very astute and point out that such an organization can exist only if the rest of the world plays by the same utopian rules. Since that rarely happens, there are a number of great arguments against Plato's Republic.

One of my favorite stories for organizational communication is from the "Republic": the Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory of the Cave compares the everyday world to an underground cave where people are chained in place. Before them is a wall and behind them is a fire. Unable to turn their heads, they see only the shadows cast on the wall. Knowing nothing else, they take these shadows for reality. If one of these people were unchained and brought to see the light of day and the reality outside of the cave, he would come to know the shadows from the real things that cast the shadows. After becoming accustomed to the world outside the cave, that person may feel remorse for those left in the cave and wish to return to free them as well. But his fellow cave dwellers would not believe the wild tales of the world outside the cave, and they would consider him a fool for going out into the daylight. They might even revolt against him.

Philosophically, Plato's analogy is an attack on our habits of thought. For communicators, the cave story provides a description of the role of communicators as liaisons between internal and external publics and an organization. Communicators serve as spokespeople and change agents when representing organizations to internal publics and external publics. Often they fare as poorly as the man who got away from Plato's cave, because they bring news and information back to the organization that does not match the organization's perception of the world outside.

This scenario, with terms such as "reality" and "truth," usually starts a lively discussion concerning definitions of the truth and reality for an organization. For example, the tobacco industry, truth is that cigarettes do not promote cancer or other lung conditions. Yet the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society's truth indicts cigarette smoking as a major contributor to cancer and lung disease.

Through public opinion research and relationship building programs, communication practitioners can maintain positive relationships and modify the opinions and attitudes of internal and external publics when their "truths" do not match. But as in Plato's cave allegory, the practitioner must first have the trust of the organization before the report of the world outside the organization's boundary will have merit.

ARISTOTLE & THE MIDDLE GROUND Aristotle was one of Plato's star students and a tutor to Alexander the Great. He is perhaps best remembered for his concept of "the golden mean" and its application in ethical decision making, described in "Rhetoric" (book 2, chapter 12). Aristotelian ethics can be summed up in the phrase "nothing in excess," or "strike a comfortable balance between the extremes." Students usually find this concept simple to grasp, but difficult to put into practice in their daily lives, let alone in the world of business decision making and communication planning.

As professional communicators within an organization or with individual clients, we are constantly balancing the interests of one stakeholder group against another. Recently, T had the pleasure of hearing Patricia Whalen, Ph.D., talk about her research (an IABC Research Foundation project) concerning the importance of communication in mergers and acquisitions. Choosing the appropriate communication vehicles for each stakeholder group and timing the messages were the keys to the success of the communication process. Balancing the information requirements of all parties appeared to be a major challenge in these deals.

CICERO & RELATING TO STAKEHOLDERS Anyone who ever had to study Latin (and in some schools they still do) will remember Cicero. He helped define ethical and rhetorical ideals. Even if you recall only hearing his name from the fog of your university days, you may remember that his major claims to fame came in rhetorical theory and his speeches. I point my students to one of his most admired works, "Of Friendship."

According to Cicero, the key to friendship is virtue; that is, goodness, reason and effort. He recounts at length the integrity of friendship in good times and in bad times. Although it's easy to say he was writing about interpersonal relationships/friendships, the same tenets that he outlines apply to the relationships that organizations develop with major stakeholders: employees, investors, media representatives and colleagues. I'm sure that even now, you can immediately recall a number of situations when a good relationship saved your day. Maybe it was a working relationship with a news reporter who gave you some extra time to get a statement together for your side of a story, or a colleague in your industry who gave you a heads-up on an issue that you didn't see coming. On an organizational level, good relationships with major stakeholders like employees and investors are critical to weathering hard times such as economic upheavals and industry slumps.

ONE FOR FREE I'd be remiss if I didn't add this one to my list. Not quite as classic, but one of my favorites, is Machiavelli's "The Prince." The Oxford American Dictionary defines "Machiavellian" as "elaborately cunning or deceitful." In "The Prince," Niccolo Machiavelli provides guidance through the description of a system of relationships between a new prince and his principality. The essential argument of "The Prince" is that the welfare of the state justifies everything. Machiavelli discusses leadership styles, employee types, employee loyalties, motivational styles, persuasive practices, management principles, and relationship strategies for leaders. He is not shy about advising an organizational leader to be devious, if deceit is in the best interest of his organization. As an organization's communication officer, you must understand that this type of behavior occurs and to be prepared to counsel your leaders in public perceptions and relationship building. "The Prince" illustrates the power dynamics o f some employer-employee relationships. We might not like to think that such leaders are out there, but we all have worked for one as an employer or client at some point.

The next time you're looking for a little inspiration, summon a classic philosopher or author to the rescue.

Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC, is associate professor of communication at Eiizabethtown College and chairman of the ABC Research Foundation (2001-02).
COPYRIGHT 2001 International Association of Business Communicators
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Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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