This is a true story about a large American company, the leader in its field. It happened long ago (during the Reagan presidency), but its lessons remain relevant.
The CEO, known as a visionary who was shaking up his industry, accepted an invitation to speak to an industry organization. His topic was to be the future of the industry.
He and his speechwriter prepared remarks about what the CEO expected the industry to look like in 30 years (more or less, today).
His ideas were recapitulations of his often-stated vision and projections of ongoing trends into the future. As it turned out, he was mostly right, but that was in the future.
The speech itself came and went. The CEO thought it wasn’t that important. Media didn’t attend the event, so his remarks were’t reported anywhere.
An Amazing Thing Happened
Then an amazing thing happened: the company’s public relations department began getting requests for copies of the speech from employees in the company, beginning with managers. Soon the trickle of requests became a flood as word of mouth spread about the speech.
Eventually, hundreds of copies of the speech were sent to employees and outsiders, which was very unusual for those days.
What began as a speech had become not only corporate policy but also a vision for the future and roadmap for the organization. Employees at all levels hungered for guidance not just about how to do their jobs but also how they would fit in with an evolving company and industry.
A Roadmap to the Future
The CEO had thought that his vision was well-known and that the trends he saw were visible to everybody, but most people needed that vision to be laid out more explicitly. His speech accomplished that and energized the entire company.
Of course, the same speech today would be handled much differently. Internal emails about the speech would be sent to all employees. The entire downloadable text would be posted on the corporate website and to social networks on the same day.
A press release would be distributed electronically to the media and no doubt have generated stories and requests for interviews. Optimized with key words for search engines, the speech would show up in searches almost immediately.
The Visionary Moved On
But in the ‘80s, none of those things were possible. The visionary CEO moved on soon after to a cabinet post in Washington. The company under his successors remained pointed in the direction he had set, the future he had laid out firmly a part of its DNA, and the company thrived before finally losing its way in the last few years.
Oh, yes, the company? Merrill Lynch. And the CEO? Donald Regan, who went on to become Treasury Secretary. And I was the speechwriter.
Mark Perlgut is a communications consultant who has been a newspaper reporter, in-house corporate speechwriter, head of a 22-person corporate communications department, and executive vice president at one of the largest international advertising and public relations firms.