Ten years ago I wrote the one-act play that you'll see below, which originally appeared in the Journal of Employee Communication Management.
I am drawing your attention to it today because, despite the big Web 2.0 revolution that's going on, print as a medium has not lost its relevance when it comes to employee communications. I continue to see examples of great employee magazines and hear about companies dusting off the old format and launching new ones.
I'm not blind. I know reading habits are changing, and more and more people are turning to the net as their primary source of news. But the biggest reason commercial print publications are in such trouble these days is that they're losing advertising revenue to the web, not because they've suddenly become irrelevant. The reason corporate employee publications died an untimely death many years ago is that communicators thoughtlessly sacrificed them in a Faustian pact so they could justify the cost of installing intranets.
Even as social media are revolutionizing the way we communicate, nothing on a computer screen can yet match the huge natural strengths of a corporate magazine in reaching a broad audience, allowing for in-depth analysis and capturing the essence of a brand.
I think this play is as relevant today as it was in 1998. Let me know what you think.
The Murder of the Corporate Magazine: A Morality Play
“Let’s face it. The corporate magazine is dead. And, for the most part, good riddance.”
- Ron Shewchuk, The Ragan Report, 1995
SETTING: Just outside the Gates of Hell.
THE PLAYERS: Saint Peter, Satan, Ron Shewchuk, and a generic corporate communication manager.
THE SITUATION: Left for dead by most of the North American business community and stinging from countless rebukes in the 'Report Card,' the Corporate Magazine is in Purgatory. On its way to almost certain damnation, it is given one last chance to justify its existence at a special hearing before Saint Peter at the Gates of Hell. It's going to be a tough sell. Satan seems to have all the cards. (The stage is shrouded in darkness. The lighting effects gives a kind of swirling, going-back-in-time kind of effect, showing the Corporate Magazine spinning towards a distant yellowish light, with the sound of agonizing screaming in the background and the smell of brimstone. Suddenly, the stage is bathed in bright light. Smoke trails across the floor. We are in a macabre courtroom. St. Peter is the presiding judge. The Corporate Magazine is standing at the bar, looking worn and wrinkled. Satan is the prosecuting attorney, and Ron Shewchuk is the defense counsel.)
St. Peter: (to the Magazine) Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Corporate Magazine: Your holiness, do you know who you're talking to? I was the last bastion of truth in the corporate world. Companies spoke directly to their people through me. I didn't just tell the truth, I defined one in every page. I am the truth. (shakes its head, muttering) Not that anyone cares any more, I'm doomed. Doomed . . .
St. Peter: (reading from a long list) You stand accused of wasting billions of dollars and millions of hours of time; destroying thousands of acres of prime forest; selling out to management; turning communication into a meaningless fashion show; refusing to target your audience; poisoning the atmosphere with the smell of ink and varnish; creating an artificial barrier between management and workers; and the list goes one. How do you plead?
CM: (looking very weary) I've been beaten up so long, I'm starting to believe this stuff. I might as well put an end to it all and plead guil. . .
Ron Shewchuk: (Jumping out of his chair) NOT guilty, your holiness! My client pleads not guilty . . . by reason of insanity.
St. Peter: Your evilness, you may call your first witness.
Satan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's cut the crap. The accused is guilty, and deserves to spend the rest of its days with me. But for your sake, I'll go through the motions. I have only one witness to call: the accused! (gives the Magazine a sneering look). Look at you! Do you think anyone should take you seriously dressed like that? How many colors are you?
CM: (looking haughty and slightly indignant) Nine, with one metallic and a coat of varnish. Just like any other respectable, high-class magazine.
Satan: Mmm. And your paper?
CM: Forty-pound semigloss, with a 60-pound cover.
Satan: And what's that on your back?
CM: I'm perfect-bound, of course. Saddle stitching is for the great unvarnished.
Satan: Open up and show us your photographs. Oooh! How much do you budget for those?
Ron Shewchuk: I object, your holiness! This line of questioning is irrelevant and insulting. My client should be judged by its content, not by its appearance!
St. Peter: Objection overruled. One of the charges is wastefulness, and what we've heard sounds pretty wasteful to me. You may continue.
Satan: Thank you, but there's no need. I've made my point. (rubs his hands together) Hey, hey, hey. Now let's turn to your precious content. What did you usually contain?
CM: Almost anything, but mostly fascinating stories about management's vision of the future. You know, the latest program to increase production, improve quality, motivate the workforce. And we had lots of profiles of senior executives, even some of employees. All of it was very readable, with pithy headlines, funky illustrations, wide-angle photos, lots of pull-quotes. We only focused on what worked, so it was also very positive. Every once in a while we'd talk about where the industry was going. Oh, yes . . . we usually started out with a self-aggrandizing, puffy introduction by the editor.
Satan: And was the so-called content useful to the organization you served? Did it make a difference?
CM: (Looking shifty-eyed, laughing nervously) What can I say? CEOs loved me. They showed me to their executive friends, and they loved me too. And you should see the awards I won for my editors and designers.
Satan: (rolling his eyes) Let me repeat the question. Were you useful to the organization you served?
CM: Well, now that you mention it, no one ever asked that question. I always thought it was a given. I scored high in the readership surveys.
Satan: So, if you're so useful, what are you doing here today, standing at the Gates of Hell?
CM: (angry) They all took me for granted. I started to look shoddy. My editors got sloppy. To save money they fired their designers and did the layout themselves. Pretty soon everyone wanted to put out their own magazines, but of course they couldn't, so they settled for these ugly little newsletters. Before long everybody had a newsletter. And they shunned me! (sobbing, as Satan looks on, smirking) They started publishing me less often. And now I'm here in Purgatory. Nobody even thinks of me anymore. All they talk about is their stupid intranet, and their face-to-face meetings, and how they want to tie communication to the bottom line. Well, I've had it. They can take their corporate world and shove it . . .
Ron Shewchuk: You see, your holiness? It's insane! This magazine did not commit any crime. It is a victim. A victim of changing times. A victim of . . . . (turns toward the audience, pointing an accusing finger at the Generic Corporate Communication Manager, who is seated behind the bar) . . . you! You are responsible for all of this!
Generic Corporate Communication Manager: (leaps up, frantically waves arms) It's true! It was me! I tried to kill the Corporate Magazine. I couldn't stand the smell of varnish anymore! And I needed money! Money to buy all the technology everyone told me I needed to do my job in the next millennium! Money to pay for all the communicating that has to get done if we want to survive! Everyone gets over a hundred messages a day, by e-mail, voice mail, snail mail, cell phone, pager, courier, their teammates, their bosses, the bulletin boards, the newsletters. Who can make sense of it anymore? And who's going to go look for more information on the bloody intranet when they're already so swamped they want to go jump off a bridge or start a used bookstore? (looking pleadingly at the Corporate Magazine) I was wrong! I want you back! Our employees need you! Everyone's screaming for someone to make sense of their world, and you're the only one who can do it! (The others look on as the Corporate Magazine and the Communication Manager approach each other slowly, their eyes locked on each other.)
CM: So you want me back, huh? What a joke! It's better to be in Hell than to go back to my meaningless existence in your little beauty contest!
Generic Corporate Communication Manager: (grabbing the Magazine by its cover and shaking it) Listen to me. I can change. I'll fill you full of useful information, stuff people actually need to know. Let's forget about the varnish and the nine colors. You'll look good, but you don't have to be a glamour-puss. You'll have fun again, but this time you won't be alone. Think about it: You can help tie everything together. You can report on things that everyone needs to know. You can tell people how they're doing, and how the company's doing. And you can help them navigate through all the baloney that surrounds them. You can dig us out of this mess! When I tried to kill you, I was hungry for new solutions. But I forgot to think about the most important thing of all: human nature. People like to read things that they can hold. They like to flip pages. They like to take things home. They like to sit back and soak in the big picture once in a while. And the more the world goes insane with information, the more they need a guidebook, a road map to the world of the future. If we can't have you back, we'll surely be crushed by the weight of all the information we spew at each other. Please! Come back! We need you! We loved you once. We can love you again! (The stage goes dark.)
EPILOGUE (A lone spotlight appears. Robert Stack, dressed in a trench coat, walks into the light.)
Robert Stack: So, there you have it. The story of a love gone wrong, of communicators who get so far ahead of themselves they forget what really matters. The Communication Manager was sentenced to two years of flailing around wondering why the Intranet wasn't living up to its promise. The Corporate Magazine was found guilty and sentenced to time already served, plus community service. It would reenter the workforce a changed publication, and, after some initial skepticism, the reformed Corporate Magazine would begin to earn the trust of employees and managers all over the world. The near-death experience would, in the end, help it lead a more meaningful life.