For Better and For Worse: Looking Back on How the Communication Business Has Changed in 20 Years
It was twenty years ago that I officially left from my life as an aspiring poet to become a trade journalist covering the nebulous world of corporate communication.
Lest you think that came as a comedown, you should know that in the six months since graduating college, I had worked as a “night waterman” at a local golf course, sold stuffed animals door to door and been turned down for a job by Bowler’s Journal because I didn’t have enough bowling experience.
So when I got hired by a communication trade publisher in the summer of ’92, I threw myself into the study of the corporate communication business and the creatures who inhabited it.
What I found was strange to me then. And unless you were around back then, I think you’ll find it’s strange to you, now. For instance:
1. There was an elaborate “establishment” of high-ranking practitioners and academics—Edward Bernays, Chester Burger, Harold Burson, Pat Jackson, Scott Cutlip. If you care to know who they were, you’ll click on their names. But won’t, because the ethic of the communication business isn’t based on mentors and experts and scholars, but rather on current “best practices” which we snatch from one another today, and make our own tomorrow.
Whatever works is a fine attitude to have, as long as you agree with the leaders of our organizations, who dismiss communication as subject worthy of thought or study or the establishment of guiding principles and a set of ethics. Not just some handy tools to achieve amoral objectives.
2. Many communication pros were spiritually wedded to the organizations they worked for. That is, they considered being an IBMer or an AT&Ter or an HPer a very important part of their identity. They weren’t brainwashed into believing their companies were perfect by any means—I routinely interviewed communicators who were waging grinding political campaigns for internal change over years and years—but they were emotionally and intellectually and socially involved with their company.
It was good for companies and probably good for the country to have public relations people so sincerely committed to institutions that they believed were just as committed to them. But it wasn’t good for the people, most of whom were shocked to be laid off in huge waves of downsizings in the mid-1990s, and many spent the rest of their careers in a sad denouement.
3. And most surprising and exciting to an idealistic young man just entering the field: Communication pros had the sense that, collectively, they were a force of goodness in the world. Other corporate departments—accounting, IT, manufacturing—had business objectives. Communications had business goals, too. But they also had a higher purpose. Communication stood for sharing, which meant everyone got their voices heard, which meant democracy itself! “Upward communication” and “two-way symmetrical communication” were big terms back then. To our ears now, they sound like hippie talk.
Not long before I came into the business, there was a big debate in the trade newsletter I was writing for—there used to be lots of big debates in the communication business—about whether a particular practitioner should threaten to resign over management’s decision, I think it was, to stop running letters to the editor in the employee publication.
That sounds so silly to me today. Which makes me very sad.
I once saw the aforementioned Scott Cutlip accept a lifetime achievement award at a communication conference. In his eighties at the time, he joked that he didn’t know when he had been transformed from “the angry young man of public relations to the grumpy old man of public relations.”
I worry that I’m riding the fence as we speak.
David Murray is a longtime commentator on communication. The editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, he also writes for magazines and newspapers. And he blogs about his work and his life at Writing Boots.