The illusion of progress is lucrative, in the communications business as everywhere.
"Everything has changed. Oh, you didn't know that? I can show you the way."
So when consultants talk about the stone age of communication, I'm always suspicious that maybe the stone age felt a lot like the modern age.
The other day I found myself rereading a personal memoir written by Ragan Communications' late founder Larry Ragan, and I came across a time capsule. He's writing about his first communication job, editing the employee newspaper at the Chicago plant at Ford Motor Comapny, from 1953 to 1957.
Judge for yourself how much has changed and how much has remained the same.
Interviewing for the job at Ford, I was told that the pay was $400 a month. That seemed like an astonishing sum of money; I had been getting $250 or $275.
But—wonders piled upon wonders!—a cost-of-living allowance was paid every three months, and that amounted to $130 a quarter.
Rich at last! Or so it then seemed.
My job was to edit an 8-page monthly tabloid-size newspaper. It was one of 30 similar Ford newspapers across the country. Although I did some writing—safety stories, retirement features, personality profiles, inquiring reporter departments, women's page stuff, occasionally; at least half of the newspaper was written elsewhere, mostly in the headquarters office in Dearborn. We were also permitted to pick up stuff that the other Ford papers used. Besides, to eat up space, we used a lot of pictures, playing them big.
The newspaper was intended to occupy two-thirds of my time, the other third being spent as an organizer and coordinator of recreation activities for the plant's employees. Never was any one person less suited for the job of coordinating the annual golf tournament, the bowling party, the formation of a new bowling league, a picnic for employee children, and a Christmas party for them as well. It was awful.
I worked in the Industrial Relations Department. With me were Employee Relations, Safety, Suggestions, Benefits, Labor Relations. All those jobs were filled by men who had once worked on the line during the depression, some of them as far back as the twenties. They enjoyed reminiscing about the "old" Ford days of a hard-driving assembly line, of no-smoking prohibitions, Harry Bennett's goon squads, inability to leave the moving line to go to the restroom. Now "Young Henry" was running things, the grandson. He turned the company around and provided decent working conditions, with the help and pressure, of course, of the United Auto Workers union.
When I left Ford, I would look back at my experience and shudder. While I was going through it, however, I found the work undemanding and sometimes pleasant.
Why would I "shudder" when I looked back at my Ford days? Probably because of their dullness, their sameness, their conformity. We all began at 8 and all left at 5. Well, almost all. There was an unspoken rule that the executives, and most of the men in our department fit that description, however loose it may have been, were expected to avoid the wild five-o'clock rush to the parking lot. They usually stayed another twenty minutes, if only to polish their shoes or chat with each other. I never bothered with that custom (as I did in my refusal to buy a Ford, because we had a contact that presmuably would sell us second-hand Dodges cheap).
Everyone began at 8. No exceptions, not even the plant manager (2,700 people turning out one car a minute). Almost everybody left at 5. Most of the people with whom I worked there were older and of considerably less education. Once [wife] Jeanne and I went to a small party hosted by a co-worker and were shocked by the extent of the (there is no other way to put it) dirty stories that were a part of the evening.
Maybe what I craved was the possibility of growth, of meeting new people, coping with new problems, working to solve larger problems with others. Instead, I was isolated, on the far southeast side of Chicago, the city limits, working in what came to be a corporate cog that was unfulfilling and, ultimately, dispiriting.
Communicators, as they used to say in the English books, compare and contrast.
Pat Smith says
This brings back memories. My career began two decades later, in the 1970s. Sadly, the role of social convenor persisted till at least then. My first work in media relations involved actual media relations as well as ferrying trays of lasgna between the kitchen of a nearby restaurant and my employer’s events. Communications seemed accountable for everything nobody else did. How great that the profession has drawn up clear lines of defense, defining what it is and what it isn’t, since then. At least I think it has…perhaps I’ve just learned to sidestep “other duties” over the years.
Tom Keefe says
“While I was going through it, however, I found the work undemanding and sometimes pleasant.”
I’ve recently made similar comments about my current position, and enjoy the same 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours.
But unlike Larry Ragan, this isn’t my first communication job; I’ve held several jobs over 30 years.
This one came as a life-line, after a long period of unemployment/underemployment had ravaged me financially and emotionally. I needed a “secure” position with a work/life balance, and the opportunity to try to make a positive difference.
Last night, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with three other communicators, and I talked about my hopes and plans for the coming year.
My plans take me on a different path than Larry Ragan took, and it is different than most of the readers of this blog.
The work-world has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Is that news?
Communications is such a broad field, so how could that be any different?
David Murray says
Well Tom, when and where are you going to reveal your big plans?!?
Tom Keefe says
Until I can put up, I need to shut up.
Talk is cheap, so I’m rolling up my sleeves. When ready, you will be one of the first to hear, I expect.
David Murray says
Okay, Tom. In the meantime, consider me titillated!