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Oral histories: the most overlooked public relations tool.

'You start with who's alive and has a good memory, and then expand out.'

Written histories are widely recognized as integral parts of corporate culture. But, as Levi Strauss, the Louis Martini Winery and other companies are discovering, oral histories also can be valuable public relations, advertising and marketing strategies because they represent "the life of the company."

How do you create an oral history?

Willa Baum, the director of the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley, has this advice on starting an oral history: "You start with who's alive and has a good memory, and then expand out." Expanding out entails analyzing the organization's structure and attempting to characterize that through narratives with long-standing workers representing the various divisions. These will be short interviews, one to two hours, but, nevertheless, of great value to the history as a whole.

"You want to have people who represent the workers and can talk about the progression and changes in the organization from their perspective," says Baum. "The fact that a business thinks enough of a worker's contributions to record them and use them as a guide is a matter of pride for the workers and a matter of strength for the institution. With Levi Strauss we were able to interview the leaders. We wanted to do the oldest members of the work force - laborers and floor ladies - but we lacked funding. We have 19 oral histories from Kaiser Permanente, but that still only covers the leaders. No nurses. No staff. Ah, nothing we've ever done has been ideal, but it has been ideal in terms of available resources and funding."

Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss & Co., San Francisco, draws on its oral history by using quotes from Walter Hauss, Sr., an early president and chairman of the board, in its brochures, press packets and annual reports. The company also makes references to its oral history through in-house newsletters, linking historic corporate responsibility and personnel policies with present day policies.

The Louis Martini Winery

Taking quotes from the oral history to use as a public relations, advertising, and marketing tool personalizes a company's products and services. The Louis Martini Winery, St. Helena, Calif., uses quotations from Founder Louis Martini Sr. as oral history in its advertising and press kits.

"The quotes show it's an old, traditional family business," says Lorna Ippel, the company's public relations director. "It helps in our advertising because the winery's heritage and history is what the company is all about; it's one of the few family-owned and operated wineries left, now being run by the third generation. The quotes in our advertising point out to the consumer the quality of our wine."

Companies also use oral history quotes for product displays, exhibits and even theater. The Louis Martini Winery enacted a play of the first vintners' gathering at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. The material came directly from the oral history.

The possibilities are endless

The creative marketing mind immediately grasps the possibilities if historic and in-depth interviews with people from all divisions of an organization become available. These quotes and sound bites give the advertising and public relations departments material to work with that has an original feel and texture.

Oral histories prove to be invaluable management tools as well. They not only cover the chronological account of the organization, but also the social history as well. Consequently, they are important research sources, especially in making decisions regarding the future of the company. Future leaders will be able to go back and find out what really happened 30 years ago in any given department, or what actually occurred during a major change. Accordingly, it is of extreme value that the true stories be obtained in the interviews. Frank talk and blunt observations are key elements of the oral history. To guarantee that, all interviewees should be made aware that sealing a portion of an interview for a select number of years is an option.

Many businesses end up donating their oral histories to archives such as a university library, a business library, or state, county or city historical society. The University of California concentrates on family businesses and now possesses oral histories from Levi Strauss & Company, the DeDominico Family, Kaiser Permanente and several wineries and mining companies.

These histories are made available to the public as a research and teaching tool. According to Baum, business students want to know what steps taken by the companies proved fruitful and what steps failed. This kind of study is on the increase; consequently these oral histories are in demand. This matches the Regional Oral History Office's original goal to have these histories available for scholarly research; graduate students could base their Ph.D. dissertations on these histories.

Getting help with an oral history

For a mid-sized company, an oral history project will range in the neighborhood of U.S. $20,000 to $30,000. The University of California's Regional Oral History Office bases its cost at about $1,000 per recorded hour; that covers research involved to gain background knowledge of the organization and the issues interwoven in that type of business, the interviewing, transcribing, editing, and indexing for research purposes.

Whether for private or public usage, the oral history is a unique and worthy vehicle for any organization, business, foundation, religious group, educational facility, club or association. As an authentic history, it stands alone. As a public relations, advertising and marketing resource, it provides a mother lode of material. It may still be on the cutting edge, but without a doubt, the oral history is rapidly coming into its own.

Kris Delaplane Conti operates Masterpiece Memoirs, Vacaville, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Conti, Kris Delaplane
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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