When operating at the tippity top of it’s game, the comms department can find itself in the business of sustaining corporate myths and legends. Corporate myths are stories fortified through regular re-telling. They usually represent the human face of the corporation and survive the years and generations, often in the absence of evidence or fact.
My favourite corporate myths include the wooden garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard are said to have created Silicon Valley, the mountains of sand that 3M was left with after failing to find gold so decided to make sandpaper instead, and the reliability of Roll Royce cars. The Rolls Royce myth is less well known and a noble example of the genre, and so deserves further detail.
A man buys a second hand Rolls Royce. While on a driving holiday a few years later, it breaks down by the side of the road. He’s a long way from home so calls the nearest dealership. They send an engineer who gives him a replacement car to continue his journey in and then takes charge of the broken down vehicle.
A few days later, his car is returned, fully repaired. After a few weeks, the man realised he hasn’t paid for the repairs and, not wanting to be accused of being negligent, calls the garage again and speaks to the office manager. “My Rolls Royce broke down a few weeks ago. You repaired it but haven’t yet sent me an invoice,” he said.
“Sir, you must be mistaken,” said the office manager. “Everyone knows that Rolls Royce cars simply don’t break down.”
Corporate legends are similarly made from a leader’s character retold as anecdotes and discussed around the water cooler long after the leader has moved on. The late Steve Jobs at Apple, Jack Welch at General Electric and Richard Branson at Virgin are prime examples of corporate legends. Each has had his reputation transcend the realm of business and enter general conversation. Each of these legends had also mastered the art of managing their personal profile and reputation.
Corporate myths are always manufactured, either consciously or unconsciously. I have no doubt that Google, Facebook and Twitter all have the ability to create their own corporate mythology, and the early signs can be seen in their choice of office décor that they are trying to build something. Time will tell if they survive and thrive long enough for the mythology to mature.
I have never seen the concept mentioned in a communications plan or agency pitch. Perhaps that’s because the time required for a story to become mythical is longer than the tenure of the average comms dept’s membership. But that, as an excuse, is as flimsy as a Prime Minister not making the right decisions in the long-term interest of the country because it’s unlikely he or she will be in office to benefit from it.
The new focus on content curation as part of many corporates’ social media strategy surely provides us with the opportunity to start building some future myths.