'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 & 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. …