The Grapevine and the Seeds of Internal Communications – Source of the Month (March 2023)

Cartoon from Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol. xix no. 8 (Aug 1967), pp. 22-23. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/19.

In today’s society, the spread of misinformation has become a major concern, particularly with the rise of social media, which has grown into a powerful channel of communication with very little regulation. However, this issue of misinformation is not new, and it has been a concern for firms throughout the last century. Before social media, it was the grapevine that was the primary source of informal communication.

There are two sources of the month for March. One from 1967, one from 1924. Both express serious concerns over the real-world impact of rumours spreading through the grapevine.

The grapevine was a concern for the Industrial Society, which aimed to promote worker welfare programmes as the most efficient means of running a business. The society had always had an uneasy relationship with trade unions, resulting from their philosophy that it should be managers rather than trade unions promoting welfare. This tension was particularly felt in the 1960s, at a time when concerns were growing over conflict between employers and trade unions.

In 1967, the society published a cartoon entitled ‘Uprooting the Grapevine’ that showed the negative real-world consequences of rumours spreading on the grapevine. It tells the story of a rumour that led to industrial action. The cartoon highlighted the importance of using proper channels of communication to avoid misinformation.

In the 1960s, some influential figures were promoting internal communication. In 1969, Barbara Castle, the Labour Employment and Productivity minister, wrote In Place of Strife. This government white paper argued that employers have an obligation to communicate with their workers. She argued that this was key to improving industrial relations and avoiding strike action.

This outlook is clearly shared by the cartoonist from the Industrial Society. The grapevine is presented as dangerous because the lack of oversight allows misinformation to spread. The cartoon even ends with a moral, underlining the importance of using proper channels of communication. It advocates the fashionable channel of communication of the 1960s: the briefing group.

However, the concern over the grapevine can be traced back even further to the 1920s, when the Welfare Workers’ Institute, the organization that would one day evolve into the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), was formed. Modern human resources has gradually evolved over time and one of its roots is in a post-World War One movement to improve workers’ welfare. Like the Industrial Society, the CIPD’s predecessor was part of the movement. However, its members were primarily the welfare workers themselves rather than the managers devising plans for welfare schemes. 

Communication with workers was part of the remit of a 1920s welfare worker. The second source of the month comes from the journal of the Welfare Workers’ Institute, and uses a short story to discuss the dangers of informal channels of communication. The story tells of an event in the job of a welfare worker. In this story, she is called ‘the Welf’! It highlights the negative consequences of rumours spreading on the grapevine, much like the 1967 cartoon. This concern about misinformation on the grapevine was one of the driving forces for the formation of internal comms in large organizations.

While some company magazines began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that this form of communication became widespread. The story of ‘the Welf’ was, therefore, being written at a time when magazines were becoming institutionalised as the main form of communication within large organizations. One of the functions of the magazine was to oversee the information that employees received and to ensure that proper channels of communication were being used.

The concern over the spread of misinformation is not a new issue, and it has been a concern for firms for over a century. The grapevine was a primary source of informal communication before social media, and it was a concern for organizations like the Industrial Society and the Welfare Workers’ Institute. As Sam Bleazard (Employer Brand Content Producer at Fortnum & Mason) says,

‘the grapevine keeps morphing into new shapes and forms’

The importance of using proper channels of communication to avoid misinformation has been highlighted through cartoons, short stories, and internal comms. While technology has certainly contributed to the problem, studying concerns about misinformation in a historical context can add to our perspective on today’s challenges.

Text of the story is transcribed below. The image above is from Welfare Work: The Journal of the Institute of Industrial Welfare Workers, Jan 1924, p. 32. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.97/4/2/5.

THE LITTLE THINGS.

THAT RUMOUR !

It really was a distressing- rumour! The Welf got it from the Timekeeper when she came in. He approached the subject through the weather, the prevailing distress in the district, those people who were too proud to apply to the Guardians though widows, and thus led up in a masterly way to the bit of information that the girls seemed upset like because one of them had a fit in the tram that morning, and swallowed her dinner-money, and her mother a widow once if not twice, he wasn’t sure which.

By the time the Welf had heard the versions of Nurse, the girl’s Forewoman, a sympathetic manager, and any others who happened to come along, the rumour had assumed the bold lines of Greek tragedy. Briefly, though not of necessity in order, the points seemed to be that a certain girl had had a fit in the tram, swallowed some money, and been taken to hospital. As given to the Welf the story had the accumulated detail of any tragedy as reported in any typical hysteri­cal daily paper.

In some versions the fit preceded the swallowing of the money, in others it was caused by the coins. The other chief poignant details were, that it was her tram money, her dinner money, money to buy necessi­ties for her widowed mother (once—twice—thrice widowed?), monev to go to a dance (this by the more uncharitable), money she’d no right to (this by the most uncharitable), but the exact amount varied from a penny to two or three silver coins. Those who said coppers went so far as to say they were greenish, and therefore poisonous. Again, she had been removed from the tram in a serious condition, requiring two policemen to hold her, and having fit after fit all the way up the street, had been taken to the nearest hospital. Finally, she was probably dead.

Out of this mass of devastatingly emotional and seemingly epileptic evidence, the Welf felt justified in assuming that a certain girl was possibly detained in some hospital for some cause unknown. Beyond these modest inferences to which even the strictest censor could take no exception, she would accept nothing. She decided to ring up hospitals. They were not a bit interested. They were indeed coldly unmoved, even bored. She gathered from one damsel of exquisite clay (by implication) at the other end of the ’phone that they had scores of people in every day with loose change in their insides, and it was more than likely the girl was home by now, dead or alive.

The Welf, having made lifelong enemies of two switch girls, and one porter, decided to send a tactful visitor to the girl’s home. It was discussed at length how to tackle the widowed mother in case she was in ignorance of the tragedy. After rehearsals as to what to do in about six possible situations (including fits on the widow’s part) the sick visitor went off.

Meanwhile the sympathetic Manager and Fore­woman, and anyone else who came in, gave fresh details and asked anxiously after the victim. Further reports as to the professed use of the money came in, including the suggestion that it was to pay some insurance arrears for the widow who had a life policy that would cover any husband, and that it was the rent which had never been missed for years.

Half-way through the morning a Director rang up and asked how the girl was, and was there any case of hardship, and was it true a treasury note had been swallowed? Could he help? The Welf grew very touchy. She feared that if she didn’t get news soon there’d be enquiries about a wreath and bearers.

The Sick Visitor returned. She was very ruffled and very acidly announced she’s never felt such a fool in her life. The girl was at home, had never been ill, and had jumped off the car because she found she’d forgotten her overall, and knew it was no use going on. She’d dropped some pennies, and had on alight­ing greeted two policemen as she knew one of them, and had walked up the street with them. That was all. As a result of further conference the originator of the report was traced and led reluctantly and protestingly down to the Welf. She was one of those young people who are too bright for factories. There are such. She had, she stated indignantly, merely done what her Forewoman was always telling her to do, used her common sense and reasoning powers, and if others exaggerated she couldn’t help it. She knew this girl’s sister had fits, so very likely she had them too, and she’d turned red in the face in the car and got out suddenly, and dropped money as if she’d been holding it between her teeth, and swallowed some, and the policemen had spoken to her and walked each side of her, and they’d all gone up a street leading to a hospital, and if that wasn’t plainly a case of being taken there, what could be? She’d naturally reasoned it out (glaring at her Forewoman), and if folks were fools enough to add to it, she couldn’t help it. She admitted under cross-examination hazarding a few de­tails as to home circumstances and background, but nothing like the wicked stories that were going round, and when she got to know who’d made her out such a scandalous liar she’s bash them, and she finally washed her hands of using common-sense again, and wept copiously.

At that point it is wiser to leave her, and the rumour.

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