Company histories engage, inform key stakeholders

At a time when the value of corporate culture as a factor in business success is becoming well understood, smart CEOs are turning to a tried-and-true tool to tell their stories: corporate history books.

At a time when the value of corporate culture as a factor in business success is becoming well understood, smart CEOs are turning to a tried-and-true tool to tell their stories: corporate history books.

As communications becomes more digitized and ephemeral, books - which send a message of stature, stability, and endurance even before a page is turned - stand out and have become effective PR tools for public and private companies, associations, and nonprofits.

The appeal of books parallels a recognition of the power of storytelling to sustain or shift corporate culture, create shared vision, raise morale, motivate behavior, establish identity, and shape opinion. Organizations as diverse as Booz Allen Hamilton, Coors, Kimberly-Clark, Kohler, and Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut, have made books their vehicles of choice to reach employees, shareholders, customers, benefactors, the news media, legislators, and the public.

Rather than dull recitations, the best corporate history books use bold imagery and a compelling storyline to look backward and forward - positioning a company today in light of its unique history, while illuminating a path to a thriving future. "The past has had but one value - to provide lessons we can apply to assuring our future," said former Coors' CEO Bill Coors. "We have a remarkable story [that] ... reminds us of our glorious past and doubles our resolve to keep the glory going forever."

Kohler, which, like Coors, chose my company, Greenwich Publishing Group of Old Saybrook, CT, to produce its 2003 book, had its eye on customers and staffers. "If you understand your roots, your contribution will be that much more important," CEO Herb Kohler said.

At one time, books like these were published almost exclusively to mark an anniversary. While some still use such a hook, today most books are created with a business purpose in mind. Booz Allen's book, published last year, sought to foster pride among partners and staff while educating them about Booz Allen's accomplishments, informing clients and prospects about the firm's nine decades of forward-thinking results, and inspiring admiration from recruits and alumni. The University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine published a book last year to thank a donor and attract federal research funding.

Kimberly-Clark used a book to unify two companies in a 1995 merger with Scott Paper. "By far the greatest difficulty in a merger is not the financial side, but the cultural equation," said then-CEO Wayne Sanders. "Good mergers occur quickly, somehow integrating people from the two companies into a new team. Bad mergers result in two competing teams that never come together and end up working against each other." Accordingly, a book was created that celebrates the cultures and accomplishments of each company, articulates a joint vision, and explores the potential in unity.

Greenwich Hospital used its book, published in 2003, to support a capital campaign and help employees and the community understand the hospital's contribution to the region's health - and its commitment to service excellence. CEO Frank Corvino said, "We wanted to honor our past, but we wanted to focus on the exciting challenges of the future and our hospital's place in the future. ... We needed a powerful way to tell our story that would capture the imagination of potential supporters and create a sense of partnership among all stakeholders."

The power of corporate history books is that they tell a complete story in one place - and hold their effectiveness through many encounters over years of use. Properly done, they come alive through dramatic pictures, captions, sidebars, and illustrations, presenting a set of parables that subtly and effectively convey a set of messages.

How do you create a corporate history book that works? George Pawlush, Greenwich Hospital's VP of PR and community affairs, offers these tips:

  • Allow enough time for the project. Most books take 18 to 24 months to complete.

  • Keep the internal team small. While the CEO needs to be engaged, a small team works best.

  • Stay focused on telling a great story. There is a craft to embedding a marketing message in a corporate book. Good stories are about real people and their emotions, aspirations, and even their misgivings.

  • Choose an experienced publishing partner. Corporate storytelling is a specialized art that blends history, journalism, and corporate PR. Few vendors can capture the right balance.

    Well-done corporate history books offer a powerful way to cut through the digital clutter and reach a wide range of constituents. Engaging and credible, they fly below the radar of audiences' defenses against most forms of advocacy communication - making a warm, tactile, human statement not only about an organization's past, but about its standard of excellence, its values, and its future.

  • Ray Gaulke is EVP at Greenwich Publishing.

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