I’ll admit it. I’m a huge fan of Google Apps. I just can’t seem to get enough of them.
I remember way back in 2003, when I registered my first three terms with the newly launched Google Alerts—”Corporate History,” “Corporate Archives,” and “The History Factory.” These remain the only terms I monitor to this very day. (I’ve never registered “Bruce Weindruch.” I feel it’s far too egocentric to monitor your own name. Instead, I assign a staffer to monitor the occasional mention of my name … and then email me immediately when it appears someplace.)
For those of you who use the helpful Google Alerts application, you know that your inbox gets filled with alerts at a varying pace. Some days it’s a trickle, while other days it’s a tidal wave. For the past few months, all my tsunamis have comprised “Corporate History” references. I’ve learned that, among other things:
- AIG’s $61.7 billion loss was “the largest quarterly loss in corporate history.”
- Bernard Madoff pleads guilty “to the biggest securities fraud scheme in corporate history.”
- RBS’s £24.1 billion loss “was the largest annual loss in UK corporate history,” and UBS’s loss of nearly 20 billion Swiss francs was “the largest annual loss in Swiss corporate history.”
- Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, “collected one of the biggest bonuses in corporate history.”
- The combination of Sprint and Nextel was “one of the worst ideas in corporate history.”
It’s absolutely no wonder that business people feel such ambivalence toward corporate history given the fact they’ve been subliminally conditioned by the media drumbeat to associate the term with bad news.
I understand that journalists aren’t necessarily historians. So any historical pronouncements they’re comfortable making have to be fact-based and quantifiable (with the exception of editorial writers, who regularly invoke “history” without any precedent or real understanding of the facts).
It also seems as though, in the immediacy and competitiveness of the 24/7 news cycle, there is only enough time to “shorthand” the story to the largest loss or gain in corporate history, or the worst or best merger in corporate history, or the biggest or smallest bonus in corporate history.
Corporations feed into the viscous cycle that goes something like this: They present their history in a real-time, glowing press release, like: “XYZ is one of the most significant developments in our corporate history.” Then, history proves XYZ not to be such a good idea after all. Finally, based upon the facts, XYZ may very well be described as “the worst idea in the company’s corporate history.”
Historical hyperbole elevates these occurrences to milestone status. They are picked up by journalists and overused in media, which ultimately dilutes the meaning of something being “historical.” This leads to general ambivalence about corporate history because seemingly everything is deemed “historical.”
Here’s a little something to think about: the “history” we’re told about in press releases and in the media probably isn’t history at all. How could a company know that the 21-year-old programmer who was hired this morning will turn out to be “the most important single hire in the company’s history?” Or, how could a journalist know that the current economic downturn may result in a re-thinking of corporate strategy and structure “along historic proportions?”
I would submit that a real appreciation and understanding of the past would be the first place to begin leveraging the real value of history. If you’re a corporate communicator drafting a speech or a press release about a recent development, and you find yourself about to invoke the “H” word, stop and ask yourself: “What makes this development worthy of being called historical?”
Take a few minutes to look at the company timeline and see if any like it has ever happened before. Perhaps expand your search to an industry association timeline to see if any like it has ever occurred in your industry. If you’re still satisfied that the development you’re describing might have historical significance, go a bit further. See if you can succinctly explain why this current development differs from things that have come before it. And just as important, how this development will affect the future. This is how to make a case for something being truly historic … even before the verdict is in.
As Winston Churchill observed: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” With a little forethought, you can achieve the same results for your organization.