Research Update (February 2024)

Rhetorical History and Corporate Social Responsibility

The new year has got off to a great start for the History of Internal Communication project. A year of research in the archives bore fruit this month. Having discovered so much about the history of internal communication, January gave us an opportunity to write about our findings. We were pleased to finish work on an article, set to be submitted to the academic journal Organization Studies later in the year, which explores the fascinating topic of rhetorical history.

Our research has taught us much about how organisations construct and employ historical narratives strategically to establish legitimacy, foster trust, and influence both the present and the future. What sets our work apart is its focus on internal audiences, providing a unique angle on how rhetorical history has been employed in organisational communication. By examining historical narratives from the past and present, our article aims to offer valuable insights for organisations seeking to leverage their history for enhanced internal communication strategies. To gather further insights and refine our work, we have submitted papers on our research to the Academy of Management conference in Chicago and the Association of Business Historians conference in York. These platforms promise invaluable feedback to enrich our final article.

We have also been working on an article for Human Relations on the history of Corporate Social Responsibility. In our research, we have found CSR’s roots extending further than is normally acknowledged. In the 1920s, magazines were being used by companies to support the development of internal labour markets, incentivising long service with rewards and running features on opportunities for career advancement within the organization. The investment in creating incentives for long-term employee retention reflect the growth of the concept of employment over the short-term hiring of workers. The Industrial Welfare Society and the Welfare Workers’ Institute (now the CIPD), two organizations that we have been studying, played an important role in spreading these practices between organizations. This historical perspective sheds light on the origins of CSR, offering a deeper understanding of its evolution over time.

Engagement with the Internal Comms Community

Collaboration has been at the heart of our work, and January was no exception. We have enjoyed collaborating particularly closely with the Institute of Internal Communication this month, featuring on the Future of Internal Communication podcast for the second time. The podcast, scheduled for release later in the year, explores the findings from the first year of our research and their implications for the challenges faced by internal communication professionals today.

On a similar theme, the team was pleased to finish writing an article for the institute’s Voice magazine, which will come out in the spring. It explores historical examples of how new technology has impacted internal communication, drawing parallels between historical shifts and our current approach to emerging technologies like AI. In the celebration of the Institute of Internal Communication’s seventy-fifth anniversary, we are working together to curate a gallery telling the story of the history of internal communication through captivating images from the archives. It includes material like the one below, taken from an early publication of the British Association of Industrial Editors, the name by which the Institute of Internal Communication was original known.

Cover of a 1953 publication by the British Association of Industrial Editors

Our project released some exciting online content this month. We were delighted to be joined by David Macleod as a guest for the History of Internal Communication podcast. David is well known in the internal comms world as the co-author of the hugely influential 2009 Engage for Success report. In the interview, David looked back at how internal communication has developed in the 14 years since he and Nita Clarke wrote the report. He reflected on the monumental shifts he’s witnessed during his career and talks to us about a wide range of topics from the challenges of working with senior managers to employee engagement.

The project also posted a thought-provoking Source of the Month on its blog that looks at the issue of context. It draws parallels between the challenges faced by internal communication professionals and historians. Understanding how context shapes our perceptions of the past is not only a historian’s task but also a crucial aspect for communicators crafting effective messages.

Team Updates and Upcoming Research

January brought significant changes for the History of Internal Communication team. We were delighted to congratulate Michael Heller on being appointed Professor of Business History at Northumbria University in Newcastle. Joe Chick has also moved to Northumbria University, which has become the new home of our project. With visits to the John Lewis Heritage Centre and the BBC Written Archive Centre in the upcoming weeks, we look forward to uncovering more insights and sharing our research with you again next month.

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