By Sonia Nicholson, CPRS-VI Archivist
Archival records are a bit like a theatre technical crew: no one notices them as long as everything is running smoothly.
But if the lights don’t go out when they are supposed to or a sound cue is missed – or in the case of archival records, a critical document is needed but can’t be found – suddenly people start paying attention.
Who has a copy of our original bylaws? When was our organization incorporated? Or perhaps the questions that you never want to have to pose: Why don’t we know? Why wasn’t that kept?
Of course hindsight is 20-20 and it’s easy to say “We should have…” Businesses and non-profit organizations are primarily focused on what’s happening now and where they are headed as they move forward. With busy schedules and often limited resources, perhaps few are thinking about looking back.
Famous Saanich resident Nellie McClung said in 1935 that “People must know the past to understand the present and face the future,” and this holds true for organizations.
Your corporate memory is your foundation and represents who you are. And unlike the most common perception of archives as being old and dusty, your history is a living entity.
It begins when the ideas for your business are first born and grows with you, not only through your special projects but also through your regular activities. As an organization, you are creating history today and every day, and you should remember to preserve the records (both paper and electronic) to prove it. Ideally, the best time to start thinking about your corporate archives is at the beginning; but if you didn’t do that, start now!
In my short time with CPRS Vancouver Island (CPRS-VI), I’ve heard a lot about branding, and the more that I learn, the more that I realize and appreciate how archives and the style of public outreach that archivists undertake apply to public relations in the broader context.
Corporate archives can be a powerful tool for public relations practitioners. Your “brand heritage” can evoke a nostalgic emotional response, provide insight into current discussions and inform decision-making, and inspire future initiatives.
Think of brands that have done this well. Coca-Cola, for example, has used its archives prominently in its storytelling and even to encourage customers to share their own memories. In Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company, with an incredible archives housed in the Archives of Manitoba, launched a new campaign in 2015, highlighting its long history and its connection to Canada’s identity as a nation.
“It is not unusual to find institutions that keep track of corporate developments to project future trends, to remind employees of historical successes to build pride, and to use company history to solidify their brand, to be among the most successful,” said CPRS-Nova Scotia Archivist Mary Barker, APR, LM, FCPRS(H). “That sort of activity can have a bottom-line pay-out for businesses or organizations. It emphasizes the importance of maintaining corporate archives.”
While your own organization may not have hundreds of years of history to draw from, your corporate records are of no less valuable.
In 2002, CPRS Nova Scotia (CPRS-NS) celebrated its 45th anniversary. Bringing together 21 of the 26 still-living past presidents, it presented a “looking back – looking forward” professional development session for public relations practitioners – students to retired professionals.
“Knowing names and dates of past presidents for invitations and for commemorative certificates was crucial,” said Mary. “The production of a book containing the outcome of the event and a brief history of the Society that included information on the original constitution, by-laws, awards and milestones in the development of public relations education and the profession required documented evidence. The value of having archival material and the problems encountered of not having complete archival materials was magnified in this one project.”
Mary credited past presidents such as Len Canfield APR, LM who had the foresight to keep hard copies of minutes, photos, awards, and other society documents dating from its inception to the late 1980s, providing a substantial reservoir of information from which to begin writing the history. However, electronic records after that date were more problematic. Paper copies were not kept, or lost, and electronic records were often not retained or disappeared as computer systems changed.
Mary had to rely on personal recollections and individually-kept memorabilia that members were willing to share in order to put together a record of the Society’s more recent history.
“It seems we became a ‘delete society’ while trying to be a ‘paperless society’, with the attitude that the past was no longer important and if information was needed it could be retrieved from somewhere or developed again,” said Mary. “There was no thought as to the time and money that would be required to do this, or even if it was possible.”
Hard copies can still be part of your records management strategy, particularly for material with high archival value to your organization. If you choose to retain a digital archive, you need to consider and plan for media obsolescence and data migration to avoid gaps in your organization’s documentary heritage.
Whether records are in electronic or paper format, or both, the important point here is a key tenet in archival practice: access. As part of your ongoing business continuity planning, you need to allocate resources – budgetary, technical, and human – to ensuring that your records will always be available.
With CPRS-VI is celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2017, I am excited to begin the process of “looking back” and sharing with you the beginnings, achievements, and stories of this organization and the public relations, communications, and marketing practitioners that have made it what it is today.
As someone who is new to CPRS-VI, I am grateful to those who came before me like Mary Barker who understood the value of CPRS at the national and regional levels, making the effort to record and preserve our rich history.
Sonia is an Archives Specialist with the District of Saanich. With nearly a decade of experience, Sonia is an archives professional by trade and a storyteller by heart. In recent years her work has focused on public programming and school outreach, social media, web content management, and promotions. In her spare time, she is a volunteer with Superheros of Victoria.