"Corporate history is coagulated purpose"

Research center founded on PR history and corporate history communication

Under the conference motto "Communication of History History of Communication," some 90 communication scholars, historians and communication practitioners discussed the emergence of corporate communication in the 19th century and corporate history as a topic of corporate communication at the University of Leipzig on Thursday, September 23. The digitally broadcast conference marked the official founding of the Center for History and Corporate Communication. The initiative of the Günter Thiele Foundation for Communication and Management is scientifically led by Prof. Dr. Günter Bentele (University of Leipzig) and the Leipzig alumnus Prof. Dr. Felix Krebber (Pforzheim University, Business School). In the future, it will promote research and connect practitioners on the strands addressed in the conference.

In his welcoming address, Prof. Dr. Christof Ehrhart, Executive Vice President Corporate Communications & Governmental Affairs of Robert Bosch Ltd and member of the Board of Trustees of the Günter Thiele Foundation, referred to the relevance of history for companies and drew a connection to the debate on the creation of meaning: "Corporate history is coagulated purpose”. University Rector Prof. Dr. Beate Schücking took up the debate on professionalization and, using the example of the Leipzig Sudhoff Institute for Medical History and the professional training of physicians, described how important dealing with the past of a discipline is for critical self-reflection especially from an ethical point of view. The two thematic pillars were also taken up by the keynote speakers Prof. Dr. Hartmut Berghoff (University of Göttingen) and Prof. Tom Watson (Bournemouth University). They traced historical framework conditions for the emergence of corporate communications in the German Empire as well as a global history of PR. The Center's founders, Bentele and Krebber, presented a theoretical framework for corporate history communication and pointed out the need for an integrated communication perspective that takes all stakeholders into account and does not narrow history communication to history marketing alone. In the field of PR history, they drew attention to gaps in historical professional research.

The debate continued intensively in the afternoon. Students from the Pforzheim Master's program in Corporate Communication Management introduced – among other aspects – the findings of their study on the public's expectations of the communication of history.

The discussion continued with contributions on the emergence of corporate communication at Carl Zeiss, HAPAG, Krupp, Siemens and the Leipzig Trade Fair, which were also interesting because, in addition to new research findings regarding these companies, it was possible to show that corporate communication did not emerge as a reaction to critical or incorrect media reporting, but rather proactively for reasons of division of labor and the motive of providing customers and other stakeholders with serious information.

In the track on history as a topic of corporate communication, the diversity of the newly created field of action became apparent: On the one hand, the content was illustrated by questions of responsibility for history, using the example of the Gleis 17 memorial, with which Deutsche Bahn commemorates the deportations of Jewish citizens with the Reichsbahn during National Socialism. On the other hand, the spectrum extended to questions of historical references in marketing communication at Porsche. Structurally, the participants got a glimpse into the "engine room" of historical communication at Bosch as well as into the service provider and consultant perspective of the consultancies Stader and Koch. Marcel Messer from the Messer Group described from his very personal perspective how in a family business the sincere handling of history is a "matter of the heart".

In the evening, the conference organizers were "somewhat tired but very satisfied with the successful start of the new research center," as Bentele and Krebber summed it up in unison, after a day with a dense content and committed discussions also on ethical questions of the profession and the teaching of history.

A first version of this text appeared in PR Journal. We thank the editors for allowing us to use the report here.​​​​​​​

Photos: Tobias Tanzyna.