Just before my father died, I asked him why he kept repeating stories about his childhood and his life. He said, “So you will remember them when I am gone.”
Suddenly, it sank in that there really is meaning to the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.”
For the past 50 years, business has been relatively invisible when it comes to telling its story. In the early days of television, the National Association of Manufacturing sponsored a weekly program called “Industry on Parade” and I would watch it faithfully every week. We learned how cars were put together and how steel was forged.
In the 1970s, the forest products industry, feeling the brunt of criticism over air and water emissions from its pulp mills, smoke from slash burns and the unsightliness of clear-cutting, decided it needed to tell its story.
The American Forest Institute was formed and the group spent millions to help educate teachers and schoolchildren about forest management, timber harvesting and the multiple uses of a forest – clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and growing timber.
Unfortunately, when the economy collapsed in the early 1980s, AFI died for lack of funding. However, in Washington, the Washington Forest Protection Association started investing more than a million dollars a year telling the public how growing and harvesting timber in a well-managed forest is compatible with clean water, fish and wildlife.
The results of WFPA’s efforts have been astonishing. When it cranked up, people overwhelmingly wanted to stop clear-cutting. Today, people have a better understanding of forest management and, according to tracking polls, have pretty well jettisoned the old “cut and run” image of the early days of logging.
Business itself, though, has not fared as well, primarily because it has neglected to talk about its benefits in ways people can understand and relate to.
When U.S. Chamber of Commerce leaders polled Americans last year, they found people had a jaundiced view of capitalism and equated it closely to socialism.
For all practical purposes, the two concepts are worlds apart, yet if voters don’t understand what free enterprise is all about – and its intrinsic value to our country and society – then shame on us. Business really needs to pony up some money and tell its story, much like WFPA is doing.
In Washington, we have a great opportunity. Just as the forest industry pioneered environmental education programs through Project Learning Tree in the AFI days, the Washington Business Week program has grown over the past 35 years, graduating more than 50,000 high school students from its summer on-campus programs.
Business Week is an economic education program that blends the experience of business leaders with the teaching abilities of classroom instructors and the enthusiasm of teenagers to experience what it like to run a business, manufacture a product, operate a medical clinic or start a construction company. It is one small program in need of a greater effort to let people know what private enterprise is all about.
Business needs to tell its story and its leaders need to put up the cash to tell it in a way that will change people’s views of capitalism. Free enterprise is not free. Just like the freedoms Americans like my father and uncles fought for in World War II, the free enterprise system, which draws people from other parts of the world, is expensive to maintain.
We shouldn’t forget that people have short memories and there are reasons why our elders tell their children about their lives – so they won’t forget.
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.