Thursday, 12 January 2017

‘Bathrooms are coming’ - internal communication history on BBC Radio

The apostle Paul, corporate musicals, early use of internal radio networks and the renowned US corporate communicator Arthur W. Page all featured in a BBC radio history of internal communication (IC) broadcast on December 31.

Billed as ‘Bathrooms Are Coming: An Internal History of Corporate Comms’, the programme took its title from an American Standard corporate musical of the late 1950s that promoted new ranges of bathroom and sanitary ware to employees and distributors.

My role in the programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, was to introduce the history of internal or employee communication and provide producer Emma Kingsley with background information on the field.

The start point was to set IC in the context of persuasive communication. The Apostle Paul could be considered an practitioner through his letters to early Christian communities and visits to them, as suggested by US scholar Robert E. Brown. The first employee newspaper seems to be the Lowell Offering prepared by women operatives for staff of the Lowell Cotton Mills in New England between 1840 and 1845. In the US, UK and Germany, there were many examples of newspapers and even film units in the latter part of the 19th century.

By the 1920s US corporations such as Western Electric Company, Heinz, Pennsylvania Railroad and Metropolitan Life were using radio, telephone link-ups, film and newspapers to communicate with widely-spread staff. Heinz, of baked beans renown, held a ‘radio banquet’ in the 1930s so that all employees across the US could be “brought into a family circle” at the same time.

It was at this time that Arthur W. Page joined AT&T and introduced his strategic approach to employee communication. His view was that every AT&T employee held equal responsibility for the company’s fate, because anyone meeting employees, called “the original walkie-talkies”, was effectively in contact with AT&T. Nearly 90 years later, my view is that Page’s research-led views on IC are is well worth considering.

As for corporate musicals, their hey-day was the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to American Standard, they were used by big corporations such as Ford, GM, Milliken and Shell. With the popular and critical success of the movie La La Land, could it be time for the corporate musical’s return?

Here is the link the BBC Radio 4 program: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086knhm