Research, analysis, and thought leadership for enterprise communications.

Things Have Changed to the Letter

by in rant

Can you imagine the CEO of the world’s largest corporation reading and personally responding to every single letter sent to him by the public?

OK, well, if it was Steve Jobs, perhaps at least on occasion.

In 1980 the Bell System was the world’s largest corporation, with more than 1-Million employees and 10-Levels of management from the field to the top. It was a monstrous organization that was vast and broad. It managed the nations phone system, the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and was responsible for all communications in putting man on the moon. And, to be honest, the company was not all that well liked. MaBell was inflexible, standardized, and a monopoly.

(People didn’t realize that the monopoly rates were not because of an inefficient monopoly but because the Bell System designed and developed all of our nuclear weapons as well as our stockpile of binary biotoxins which were prohibited by a treaty that exempted private corporations.)

So, you would imagine that the President of this could would get a fair amount of mail, especially since postage was something like a dime.

You would be right. He did. Perhaps half a dozen letters a day.

What would surprise you is that he read every letter. And, he called in staff to respond and research and get back to him. And, then he would personally dictate a response. And, he would read the reply. And, he would personally sign the letter. (Sometimes the staff would prepare a draft, but he would heavily edit those.)

I know this because I worked on the private staff for Bill Ellinghaus, president of AT&T around 1980. We saw and occasionally handled these letters.

He was an amazing man who thought a lot about the future, and who genuinely tried to serve the public. He was dedicated to the spirit of public service, and the government anti-trust lawsuit was just killing him emotionally.

Anyway, this man answered the mail he received. He took it very seriously. He didn’t just give glib, generic brush-off remarks. He cared and he signed every letter, personally.

I remember my boss, a 5th level who reported directly to him, pointed out once that the cost of every letter was thousands of dollars. But Bill Ellinghaus didn’t care. If somebody thought it was important enough to write to him then it was important enough to respond.

Can you imagine such a thing, today?

Try writing to the president of Verizon and see where it gets you. My guess is your phone service will get disconnected. But that’s only a guess.


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Colin Berkshire is a highly technical HR executive in the Pulp and Paper Industry. Colin has an engineering and voice background, and is currently on assignment in Asia. NOTE: Colin does not respond to comments, and does not Tweet.