Dutch courage: modern PR lessons from the world’s first corporation

I admit it.

Sometimes, when no-one’s really watching, I enjoy some really geeky TV programmes about things like history, the natural world and obscure facts. I once spent several hours tuned in to something about the trials and tribulations of building railways in Switzerland.


Last weekend the watch was a little more mainstream thankfully. But it got me thinking about what was, probably, the very first business in the world to do public relations, and what we in the industry might learn today from how it operated, how it communicated and how it behaved.


Andrew Marr’s Age of Empire show on BBC One looked at the story of the Dutch East India Company. The Age of Plunder episode charted the rise of Europe “from piracy to private enterprise”, and in particular the Dutch East India Company’s emergence as the first global enterprise, complete with a communications infrastructure, labour negotiations (where there was any negotiation..), publicly-traded stock, a multinational supply chain and need to develop sustainable relationships with governments, customers and workers around the world. In a fairly primitive way perhaps, but the principle was there.


The history of the earliest of firms has always fascinated me. But what stood out about this tale was how many of the fundamental characteristics or activities of the fledgling multinational business that became a commercial superpower remain relevant today. And have particular pertinence for public relations as it performs its modern role across conventional, social, owned/branded and hybrid media.


Here are some things that the Dutch East India Company pioneered or tackled as challenges as it grew, which strike me as all salient points to remember when developing deeper audience understanding, engagement and immersion via public relations today:

  • Distribution routes are crucial and must be mapped intricately, with alternative ways and means worked out in a master contingency plan
  • It is wise to ‘spy on’ the competition..
  • Be brave in taking calculated risks, but systemise how you learn from those endeavours and you will gain in strength
  • Share responsibility for communicating across the most customer and stakeholder-facing elements of your operations, using a clear hierarchy to designate responsibility and accountability
  • Develop singular, complex and all-conquering plans of operation (or communication), then put the right people in the right places in order to orchestrate them
  • The way in which communication is undertaken and has the capacity to influence people is ever-changing, so you’ve got to keep on top of it and move swiftly with the times (although in fairness, it’s a little trickier now than it was in the 17th Century)
  • Once presence has been created and reputation begins to build, it should be both monitored and developed further
  • Loyalty is exceptionally precious, and must be both acknowledged and rewarded
  • Corporate governance and responsibility are of the utmost importance and should be absolutely at the heart of the enterprise, and communicated clearly to all parties
  • Complacency is likely to lead to death


There are lessons here. The Dutch East India Company was certainly pretty ruthless in its activities, so is no model for a modern business. But if the world’s first multinational, anchored in a relatively small nation, could figure this all out for itself while pioneering capitalism and globalisation, then surely the story puts the challenges of modernising communications today into some perspective.

Original post from: Steve Earl’s blog on PRWeek.com

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