Is your corporate history time well spent?

A company’s past is arguably its most important ‘story’, but telling it well online is a subtle art, Jason Sumner says.

Creating a corporate history for the website seems straightforward enough – mention how it was founded, put a few milestones on a timeline, maybe add something inspirational at the end, eg how the ‘values’ of the founding are inspiring the company into the future.

The reality is online corporate histories call up all sorts of choices and problems. Which ‘story’ do you choose and who is it aimed at – jobseekers, investors, customers, your critics, everyone? If the company has been around for a number of years, it may have merged and demerged so many times that the current entity is unrecognizable from its dim and distant parent. Think AT&T, which has almost nothing anymore to with Bell Telephone founded in 1877. Maybe this is why AT&T’s online history is limited to a few precisely worded paragraphs that skip over nearly a century of monopolies, government-ordered divestments and byzantine ownership arrangements.

Large companies with long histories will have accumulated archive material, some of it with wider historical interest – how much of that, if any, should be included? Once the gist of the ‘story’ (or stories) is decided, how should it be told, via a textual narrative, eg like BP’s, or primarily via multimedia, like Google?

Then there is the matter of skeletons in the closet – scandals, disasters and controversies. Mistakes in how these are presented can be costly to reputations. Full transparency, if it makes it past the lawyers, could be calling attention to an event most people may have forgotten. On the other hand, not saying enough about events still in the public memory can make the company seem shifty.

Present opportunities

It is no wonder some big companies, like Apple, do not bother, or others, like Viacom, make their histories a dull laundry list of mergers and acquisitions. They are understandable reactions, but not, we think, the right ones. An online corporate history, told appropriately and with thinking behind it, is something key website audiences such as jobseekers will seek out and spend time reading (and turn to Wikipedia if it isn’t there). Not having one is a missed opportunity to convey any number of messages: reinforce the group-level brand image, promote the company’s traditions and values, make an investment case for a longstanding, solidly run company, explain the company’s community activities through the years, emphasise its commitments to innovation for customers, or to simply set the record straight.

More than one thing after another: Roche, Google and J&J

History may or may not be ‘one damned thing after another’ but some corporate histories can read that way, tedious and incoherent. A cohesive narrative, either overt or subliminal, is essential. Roche’s online history – a minimalist but innovative interactive timeline that mixes rich images and compelling text – manages this by putting its founder at the centre of the story: ‘The founder of Roche, Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, was a pioneering entrepreneur who was convinced that the future belonged to pharmaceutical products.’

Google’s vibrant multimedia timeline, which consists of interactive image panels and quirky videos (see the ‘Saul Bass doodle’), works at a more subconscious level, saying, ‘We are cool and innovative, come work for us, come invest in us.’

American companies, probably for obvious reasons, like to emphasise the lone entrepreneur or entrepreneurs rising from humble beginnings. Here is Johnson & Johnson: ‘1886: Three brothers, Robert Wood Johnson, James Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson, found Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S.’ The rest of J&J’s image-rich timeline knows who it wants to appeal to, with the spotlight on innovative products and customer care. Two examples among many are entries on the publication ‘Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment’ in 1888 and in 1894, ‘Johnson & Johnson launches maternity kits to make childbirth safer for mothers and babies.’

Apple and Microsoft – history is bunk?

Apple and Microsoft stand out among the top tier of the FT Global 500 for online historical neglect. As mentioned above, we could not find one on Apple’s corporate website. Microsoft’s looks amateurish and is poorly signposted. What could explain why two companies whose histories (and founders) have attained legendary status among their followers, do not feel it necessary to tell their tale themselves? Maybe they are ok with leaving history to the many biographies, films and documentaries. Maybe, Apple in particular, thinks corporate history is a ‘dull’ subject that does not fit with a brand so associated with the future. Still, the approach by Google, which is in a similar position, seems to suggest it may be the wrong line to take.

Monsanto: History will be kind to me

We praised Monsanto’s use of archive material in a recent BC Tip, while acknowledging its general approach was not without problems. One of the main ones is a too-narrow focus on ‘Monsanto’s agricultural history’. The lawyers literally have their fingerprints on the company’s online history feature, forcing the inclusion of a confusing disclaimer on nearly every page explaining how references to ‘Monsanto’ prior to 2000 also include references to the agricultural division of Pharmacia. Focusing on ‘agricultural history’ is a convenient way for Monsanto to skip controversial 20th century episodes such as the manufacture of DDT and Agent Orange. This may be too glib, especially when anyone can read all the details on Wikipedia.

Indeed, removing references to disasters and controversies may still make sense in some cases (why call attention to events that may have disappeared from the public consciousness) but the arguments against openness are weaker in the age of Wikipedia.

Corporate history in a time of Wikipedia

BP has one of the best-written histories on the web. (‘The smell of natural gas was unmistakable. It was a smell you could see. The vapours rose clearly in the sunlight, and stank of rotten eggs. But to the explorer George Reynolds it was the best thing he had smelled in seven years.’) And yet, everything after 1999 appears to have been removed, presumably because it takes in the period leading up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The text finishes just before the turn of the century - ‘BP had found a new momentum.’ We can all fill in the blanks, making the omission of 15 years seem overly cautious. On balance, we think it is usually better to try to tell the story if people will get the facts from other sources.

That is why Nestlé is open in its online history about criticism over baby formula marketing in the 1970s and ExxonMobil gives space to the ExxonValdez disaster: ‘The Valdez oil spill was a tragic accident that ExxonMobil deeply regrets.’ German companies tend to be models for online transparency about their relationship to the Nazi regime. See Daimler’s ‘Tradition’ extensive timeline entry ‘Daimler-Benz in the Nazi Era’, which matter-of-factly describes the company’s secret armament production and use of forced labour in the 1930s and 1940s, but also its efforts to atone after the war.

Not a company’s job to be open, but it helps

We do not advocate transparency for its own sake - a company’s job is not to be open, it is to do what is best for the company. However, in a time when even minor controversies receive great air play on social media and come close to being eternally searchable (despite the best efforts of the European Union to assert the ‘right to be forgotten’), being open about the past and doing what is best for the company are much nearer to being one in the same.

First published 13 May, 2015
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