The Great Debate

By Ragan, Larry | Communication World, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

The Great Debate


Ragan, Larry, Communication World


One well-known communication executive laughed at what he termed "chit-chat," the personal news of employees, the comings and going, the births, marriages and bowling scores.

That's not the stuff of real communication," he argued, and no self-respecting editor would have any truck with the stuff."

His opponent, a man heavy with the years of wisdom, said hell no, that's precisely what employees want to read: they want to read about themselves. He contended that it is precisely such information that humanizes the impersonal, faceless corporation.

"The little people are important, too, he said.

Where do you stand on that argument?

Twenty years after the Great Debate I was chairing a workshop at an IABC international conference. I forget what the topic was, but one of the panelists-he was from Mississippi, as I recall-allowed that every June he includes pictures of all the high school graduates whose parents work with his company.

Another panelist expostulated that such material was not proper to a company publication, whose purpose is to inform employees about significant issues facing the company.

It was then that the meeting fell apart. Each of the 50 persons in the room could not wait to be heard; each had a vehement opinion on the subject In the back of the room a woman charged that the anti-high-school-picture crowd were nothing but elitists.

"You guys," she said, "forget that the little people are important, too."

Her very words. I grimaced, thinking of the Great Debate, and wondered if we had learned anything in the past 20 years.

Where do you stand on the question?

To find out, the editors of the Ragan Report asked their readers, "Do you think personal news about employees has a place in employee publications?"

Posing the question, I reminded myself that I had yet to attend an IABC international conference when I have not heard at least one speaker refer unkindly to this form of employee news.

"We have long since passed the time when employee communication means weddings and bowling scores," goes a typical comment. I need not finish the idea because you yourself have probably heard it expressed as well-that what today's employee cries out for is information about the problems and vital issues confronting the organization.

It is as if many editors and speakers at conferences are living in different worlds. The anti-bowling-score commentators don't live in the world that I see, one that includes thousands of publications crossing my desk, and a large proportion of them carrying news about weddings, births, deaths, and-shame! shame!-bowling scores.

Ragan Report readers seem to feel the same way, because 65 percent of them embraced the idea of personal news in employee publications. But the platitudes used to express them remained the same.

One response (in favor of personal news): "When most of us stopped being editors and became corporate communicators, it became un-chic to see ourselves as purveyors of Joe and his fish' stories. Unfortunately, most of our fellow employees are still interested in much of the same old stuff."

A different point of view: Carrying personal news about employees degrades the publication. Space in a publication is too important to waste."

So one can see how far we have come since the Great Debate in the early fifties. Not very far. Despite the technological miracles, despite the video and the audio, the electronics, the E-Mail, the computerized benefits statements, employee annual reports, the corporate policy letters to middle management, the upward communication-all done with growing sophistication and effect-employee communication people have not yet agreed upon what to communicate.

Don't believe it? A half-dozen colleagues ask about the spirit of openness existing in their organizations. Let me start things by recounting a few recent conversations. …

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