Studs Terkel called this the "United States of Alzheimer's," because we forget where we came from.
I always thought he was being kind.
More often, we don't even ask.
That's why, when IABC veteran Wilma Mathews told me over dinner recently about a long ago speech about the communication business that she still remembered, I asked her to fax it to me.
It was delivered on November 15, 1977, by Jacob Whittmer, then president of IABC, at a meeting of the association's District II, in Winston Salem, N.C.
The speech is dated in many ways—early on, he jokes that "the new definition of a ghostwriter … is a person who wrote an unsatisfactory speech for Idi Amin"—and comfortably current in others. Here's an excerpt, and then I'll share Wilma's remembered reaction to the speech:
All in all, I've been kicking around the communications business since 1935—that's a long time—when I served as editor of my high school newspaper back in Southern Indiana.
Frankly, I really wasn't much concerned with talk of "power centers" or even audience impact back in those days. In fact, I was a pretty naive country bumpkin.
My first exposure to the power syndrome business—if you can call it that—came a couple of years as a sophomore journalism/political science student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I distinctly remember hearing the cocky law students going around singing their favorite ditty: "Oh there's power, power, wonder-working power in the law, in the law. Oh there's power, power, wonder-working power in the Indiana law."
Even then there were, of course, some journalism professors and newspaper publishers who talked about the "power of the press." But no one took them very seriously—at least not in the same frame of reference in which we think of media power today.
As for industrial editing or business and organizational communications, it was practically unknown, especially to the journalism profession. Where it did exist, it was primarily a paternalistic device written in gossip column style—usually by the boss's secretary to keep everyone up to date on social and personal goings on. …
Over the years a gradual evolution occurred to give us the gargantua we have today—a billion dollar multi-media giant that rivals in importance and influence the rest of the entire communications industry in North America.
For example, organizational publications alone have a per-issue circulation today of more than 300 million in the United States and Canada. By comparison, the 1,888 daily newspapers in the countries have a combined circulation of only 66 million. A recent survey by Syracuse University of just IABC members indicated they have a circulation of 228 million.
And what about media such as management newsletters, newsboard or bulletin board programs, employee meetings, letters to the home, payroll stuffers, booklets and brochures, complaint and grievances systems, videotape, film, closed circuit television, cassette tapes, computer printouts, special direct mail, and on and on. The scope and variety is almost mind-boggling. …
No doubt about it, a new "power center" has come into being as the need for communications has become more intense and complex. And we as the business and organizational communicators are at the controls. We are the professionals being looked to by managements for the leadership and know-how to win out in the mounting competition for attention.
With that leadership comes the responsibility to maintain the highest ideals of performance ….
We are professional communicators representing our audiences as well as our employers. Our job is to listen, to research, to study, to consider, to interpret, to explain, to educate, to inform. By so doing, we help people to know, to understand, to work better, to achieve their dreams and expectations. Lofty ideals and objectives—certainly they are. But to set our sights lower would be to betray ourselves, our fellow professionals, our employers and our audiences.
I asked Wilma to remember what she thought of the speech and she reminded me that at the time IABC, seven years after a merger of two predecessor organizations, had 4,000 members, as opposed to around 14,000 today.
"Jake told us what our jobs where and our careers could be," Mathews remembers. "He helped us put into perspective the field of organizational communication and he guided us to professionalism. This was a time when the role of 'house organ editor' was taken away from Suzy the secretary and put in the hands of college-educated, professionally trained writers and communicators. It was a big deal!"
Readers, what was the last big-deal speech you heard (or article you read) about the communication business?