Magazine article Communication World

It's Deja Vu All over Again or Let's Not Reinvent the Wheel Unless

Magazine article Communication World

It's Deja Vu All over Again or Let's Not Reinvent the Wheel Unless

Article excerpt

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? …

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