Arthur W. Page featured in BBC history of internal communication

January 11, 2017

Tom Watson

By Tom Watson, emeritus professor of media & communication at Bournemouth University, England

Arthur W. Page, the apostle Paul, corporate musicals and early use of internal radio networks were all featured in a BBC radio history of internal communication (IC) broadcast on Dec. 31.

Billed as “Bathrooms Are Coming: An Internal History of Corporate Comms,” the program took its title from an American Standard corporate musical of the late 1950s that promoted new ranges of bathroom and sanitary wares to employees and distributors.

My role in the program, broadcast on the BBC’s prime speech radio channel Radio 4 which has 11.5 million listeners a week, was to introduce the history of internal or employee communication and provide producer Emma Kingsley with background information on the field.

The start point was to set IC in the context of persuasive communication. The Apostle Paul was an early practitioner through his letters to early Christian communities and visits to them, as has been suggested by U.S. scholar Robert E. Brown. The first employee newspaper seems to be the Lowell Offering prepared by women operatives for staff of the Lowell Cotton Mills in New England between 1840 and 1845. In the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, there were many examples of newspapers and even film units in the latter part of the 19th Century.

By the 1920s companies such as Western Electric Company, Heinz, Pennsylvania Railroad and Metropolitan Life were using radio, telephone link-ups, film and newspapers to communicate with widely-spread staff. Heinz, of baked beans renown, held a ‘radio banquet’ in the 1930s so that all employees across the US could be “brought into a family circle” at the same time.

It was at this time that Arthur W. Page joined AT&T and introduced his strategic approach to employee communication. His view was that every AT&T employee held equal responsibility for the company’s fate, because anyone meeting employees, “the original walkie-talkies,” was effectively in contact with AT&T.

In the program, I presented Page as “the exemplar for all that is best in internal communication and corporate communication.” Through audio clips from AT&T’s archive, you can hear him talking about the role of first-line supervisors in communicating with staff.

Although the BBC program mainly uses British material, my view was that the history of internal communication would not be complete without reference to Arthur W. Page.

As for corporate musicals, their hey-day was the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to American Standard, they were used by big corporations such as Ford, GM, Milliken and Shell. With the popular and critical success of the movie La La Land, could it be time for the corporate musical’s return?

You can listen to the program here on the BBC website.

Tom Watson is emeritus professor in the faculty of media & communication at Bournemouth University in England. He is the founder of the International History of Public Relations Conference and was an Arthur W. Page Center legacy scholar for 2013 and 2014.