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It's deja vu all over again or let's not reinvent the wheel unless....

We've all heard it. From speakers and from our own colleagues and bosses: Today's communicators are facing tough, new creative challenges. We must win the support of new target audiences, as well as old ones - technical, professional and middle-management employees as well as those familiar unionized and nonunionized workers.

We tear out our hair and moan: "Has any generation of communicators faced as many challenging problems before?"

Don't answer without first considering the tongue-in-cheek title of this analysis: It's deja vu all over again" or "let's not reinvent the wheel unless . . . "

The first part of the phrase was coined by baseball legend Yogi Berra. The second part was coined so long ago I could take credit myself.

But the phrases fit the current business communication problems to a "T."

Having spent a number of decades in employee crisis communication, advertising, TV, even teaching the psychology of communication in such universities as Columbia (in New York City) as well as working for business in Singapore and Australia (plus a lot of volunteer time working for IABC and its predecessors), I've started to think that many who urge us on to greater professional recognition and push us to closer work with CEOs have forgotten something vital.

We need to dig into the history of public relations, and study the challenges of the past, including the mistakes and achievements. Ten to one we'll find our oh-so-new challenges have been faced before in either our own company - or some other organization (and been solved) or their mistakes can save us anguish.

Do we tend to ignore our history? A few years ago I was called by the communicator of a large company. He needed some consulting help. I remembered the guy who'd had his job before, the battles he'd fought to get a new program in place. Managers of other functions loved him or hated him. But he got some new things done.

"I'm retired," I told my caller. I'm not ready to get into open warfare with all your company's managers like 'John Doe' did."

Who's 'John Doe? 'he said. "Did he work here?"

The caller was obviously going to reinvent the wheel a dozen times before he came up with one that fit.

Most of us fail to study the employee relations and communication history of our companies. It sounds too obvious. We don't like history. It's not until we've spent a score of years in communicating that we realize that nearly every job or project is deja vu all over again." We also find out that, as George Santayana said, "Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Right here we need a few examples:

In recent years many communicators have been spending days writing those lofty statements called "Vision" or "Mission" or just plain "objectives" depending on the level of the people we're working with.

Naturally all of us doing that work look back at our most recent "missions" and "objectives." But do we check all the way back to the end of World War 11 when competition - foreign and domestic - expanded like wildfire, when unions were set free of wartime restraints as were marketers and industrial relations people? There have been a lot of changes, but could post-WWII communication save us some reinventing of the wheel?

At GE in 1947 we put together a "mission" for employee relations, including communication. In a full-page message, GE promised to try for fair pay, good benefits, recognition and more - and especially constant, accurate communication. For many communicators today that could eliminate a dozen reinventions of the wheel.

Give thought to the effort communicators and human resource people are putting into surveys of today's employee opinions. Vho do employees want to hear from? What medium gets the most attention? More important, what medium leaves the strongest and most understood message in employees' minds? How do we apply marketing to employee communication?

Nothing new about employee communication

Is it deja vu all over again? Almost. In the late '50s and early '60s, Opinion Research of Princeton, N.J., with a base of large company clients, regularly issued the results of opinion surveys of special audiences ... one of which was employees.

Opinion Research's thick November 1960 report dwelt on "The New Marketing Approach to Employee Communication." The findings of that study of 30 years ago told us what we're finding out again. Employees want to hear from their supervisors. They want to know what's happening in the business. They want it verified in print .. recognition ... and more. Obviously these studies need to be repeated regularly, but can we eliminate some reinventions of the wheel ... ?

Consultants and our own studies are telling us: Be ready for company professional and middle-management people to become more loyal to their professions than to their companies. How can that situation be tackled?

Someone should have tried to solve this one by now. A decade ago a communication conference was told that the strongest unions in the future would be for municipal workers, health-care workers, and other professionals.

And if we look back 20 years to IABC's initial conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., behavioral scientist Gordon Lippit of George Washington University's School of Business and Government told us the same things - and he had survey figures to back them up. In the score of years since, some companies have developed successful programs to combat the changing opinions of professionals - or to ride with them and result in a win for both sides.

In that same conference, Professor Lippit listed 30 factors which his studies showed served as motivators for employees. He asked his audience to isolate the six factors that most motivated employees. I've borrowed his approach in talks given since, and it appears many of his findings of 1970 are still valid. Every organization is different but Lippit's remarks on changes in professional loyalties and motivational factors provide another chance to eliminate some reinventions of the wheel.

Customer-Driven is not a catchword of the '90s

Communication consultants say that in today's global competitive climate our employee communication must be "Customer Driven."

Customer-Driven employee communication is posing a challenge for some of us - but is it deja vu all over again? or almost? Can we save creative time? After WWII, when the fight for customers began, and when the first foreign competition began to show up in the form of electronic products and Volkswagen bugs, customer-driven communication became the goal of most communicators of the 1950s. It came in all the forms we now look on as new:

Teamwork - The committees of management and labor, formed during the war, took on new life.

Quality goals - As competitors from U.S. and abroad made management and employees aware of the need for quality, employees pitched in. Special recognition went to those in each work group who were chosen by their peers as the best.

Involvement - Employee groups went on company-sponsored trips to see their products at work in the facilities of customers - and to get customer suggestions.

Customer - CEOs visited with the employees of supplier companies ... answered questions, especially those dealing with the competitors who might win their jobs.

Communication - that's what made it all work. For example, at every GE communicator's desk in the 200-plus plants and facilities 30 years ago there was a posted C" test against which each piece of communication was measured.

The list made the communicator aware of the need to use creativity to make any news article connect up with:

* The need to win and satisfy customers.

* The need to surpass competitors.

* The need to minimize costs.

* The need to respond to change, in equipment or market.

The recognition that management is concerned about employees as individuals, and that employees share fairly in the success of the business - in pay, benefits and more.

One of the psychological principles that make any piece of communication effective is that the message must be backed up with action that proves it. Thus, when 40 years ago, GE became one of the first companies to install a health insurance plan, this event automatically lent credence to management's 1947 stated mission to provide good benefits, etc. - and automatically created employee interest in the communication that explained the need for employees to participate in the cost. Today that's a major problem for other companies and organizations.

In those deja vu years, 30 and 40 years ago, there was more to communication than employee publications - at least in some companies. Supervisors held weekly work group meetings to report on the achievements of the group and the state of the business and what competitors were doing. Production line officers met quarterly with all employees for similar purposes.

Video has recently created significant changes in communication. But is this deja vu all over again? Perhaps 30 years ago, studies of brain activity in individuals exposed to film or video highlighted the fact that people generally absorb less from video because absorption requires participation by the audience. Among many individuals exposed to film or video, brain activity drops significantly. Reading, on the other hand, requires participation by the individual. If the subject is complex or requires thought, it's no wonder business and government are concerned about literacy. The problem is to make the reading gripping - or at least interesting.

Many communicators point out the value of the computer bulletin board. It makes use of one psychological finding about communication: "It's easier to create an opinion than to change one when it already exists." The computer message can arrive fast - but will the problem audience be there?

Here is a chance to reinvent the wheel making use of deja vu. Employee publications can perhaps offer two psychological values to the sponsor. The information and interpretation can be made not only to arrive first, but can also allow for audience time to review, consider - and reconsider - the ideas being communicated. But it must perform as fast as the computer. Or, maybe, in some cases, the psychological values of the concrete in-hand newsletter may hold the edge.

We could examine every aspect of communication with the question: "Have those of us who developed it made significant changes that increase our value and the value of our product?"

Dorothy Hobbs, ABC, and Mike Emanuel, ABC, both IABC Fellows along with me and several others, had this implication: There have been many changes - but the most significant are yet to come.

Personally I think that what's still to come - with improvement every day - depends on how well we recognize that "It's deja vu all over again" is a valuable principle and that we must learn to reinvent the wheel to fit each new and different situation. We can make it fit if we carefully study the past and the psychological principles that deal with creating opinion. Hank B hr h, ABC, an IABC Fellow, is a consultant, employee communication, Fairfield, Conn.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Section 1: Drawing from the Past to Build the Future; dealing with challenges facing business communicators
Author:Bachrach, Hank
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:1812
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