SCHENECTADY – Chester Lang, editor of the Syracuse News Standard, was sitting at his desk and thinking about GE. He was not happy. It was Lang’s job as editor of The Sunday Newspaper to find good stories about the industry, and few companies at the time – he became editor in 1917 – were as large and interesting than GE. But there was a problem. “When I wrote General Electric for a story, the results were most disappointing,” he later lamented, complaining of having “a ‘story’ written in commercial language,” among other transgressions .
Still, Lang was an enterprising man, and he presented GE with an idea of ââhis own: why not open “a real news office” dealing with “real news stories,” he recalls. âFrom the many features I managed, I could see how General Electric could deliver considerably good publicity if it only released the material in a news style. “
GE liked the idea. The company hired Lang and opened its GE press office in October 1921. Since then, GE journalists have covered the company’s contributions to progress, including innovations like the jet engine, medical imaging , the electrical network, the electrical industry, lasers, LEDs and many more. Did you know that a GE executive led NASA on the historic first moon landing? Or that Steven Spielberg’s father Arnold designed and built computers for GE? And have you heard of Don Wetzel, the man who drove a locomotive powered by a pair of GE jet engines on a stretch of Ohio railroad track at 184 miles an hour, a rail speed record in the United States ?
âLang’s stories helped people understand how the technical work of GE scientists and engineers could improve their lives,â says Chris Hunter, historian and vice president of collections and exhibits at the Museum of Innovation and Science by Schenectady (miSci). âThe work of the News Bureau forms the backbone of our collection at miSci, as we share how scientists and engineers have changed the world through power generation, electronics, medical imaging and transportation. .
And GE is still there. My job as GE’s chief storyteller is to build on Lang’s foundations and develop them into the future.
Why should a global high-tech industrial company tell stories? There are thousands of engineers and scientists at GE looking for solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. Their research focuses on climate change and energy transition, precision health and more sustainable aviation, major issues that concern us all. Their stories are as powerful as the technologies they work on. We tell them to keep our readers informed and engaged, to help them make smarter decisions and to better prepare for the future.
Stories have been around long before there was electricity, long before there were books, long before we could write. They bring us together, give meaning to our lives and a sense of history. And we answer them automatically. Books have been written about humans who are the storytelling animals whose brains are wired for a story. Who knows our history better than us?
Lang quickly took over as head of the GE News Bureau. âI remember we had a lot of success back then in syndicating full-page news articlesâ to newspapers as big as the New York Sun, he recalls. He’s built his success on a proven formula that we still use: just tell a good story and people will come.
“My instructions to the editors of the News Bureau were to give the final reading of the story and imagine themselves back to their old newspaper job,” he wrote. “Would that be the way they would like to receive the story?” My thought at all times was to be in the service of newspapers, not to see how much free publicity could be slipped in by the busy editor. He added, “I was always looking for the unusual angle, the tilt that would make the headlines grab the attention of the busy reader.”
Even a century ago, the reader’s time had become a precious commodity. The first commercial radio broadcast in the United States was in 1920, and Lang saw an opportunity to expand the reach of the News Bureau. He knew from his own reporting that GE was working in radio. “The radio caught my attention because it was a medium of communication, broadcasting information much like the newspaper did,” he wrote. Essentially, it was reusing the news for a new distribution channel, just as today GE Reports stories can be found online, for example, on LinkedIn, or as a video on YouTube.
At first, he had no way of pursuing this new passion. But in 1922, GE opened its own radio station, WGY – one of the nation’s top ten stations – and News Bureau broadcasts became part of the regular programming.
Although Lang himself never became a household name – he compiled his memories on a typewriter and the document ended up in the archives of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, New York – some of which have followed have done so. One was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the famous author of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and other bestselling novels. Vonnegut joined GE in 1947, when he was still an aspiring novelist. His brother, Bernard, worked at GE Research and told him about the job.
Vonnegut only spent four years with the company, but it was an exciting adventure. Years later, he told researcher Robert K. Musil that âthe job required me to visit scientists, talk to them, and ask them what they were doing. Every once in a while a good story would come out.
He drew on this experience for his first novel, “Player Piano”, as well as “Cat’s Cradle”, which has become one of his most popular books. The catalyst for the plot involves a type of ice that forms even in hot weather. Vonnegut told George Plimpton that the idea for the substance came in a roundabout way from Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir and his brother’s colleague at GE Research. When writer HG Wells came to see Langmuir, the scientist âthought he could entertain Wells with a science fiction idea – on some form of ice stable at room temperature. Wells wasn’t interested, or at least never used the idea. And then Wells died, and finally, Langmuir died. I said to myself: âResearchers, guardians, the idea is mine. “
Three years after Vonnegut left, another big name joined GE’s public relations department. Between his time in Hollywood and his two terms in the White House, Ronald Reagan helped bring GE’s storytelling to prime time on national television. For eight seasons, Reagan and his progress reporter, Don Herbert, crisscrossed the country and visited more than 130 GE labs and factories. They talked about everything from jet engines – the technology was barely a decade old then – to the future of electricity. In 1956, “General Electric Theater” was the third most popular show on American television, reaching over 25 million viewers each week.
Even with its strong presence in print, television and radio, GE has never stopped reaching new audiences. Comics were as popular with kids and teens in the 1950s as Tik-Tok, Snapchat, or Instagram are today. The company saw comics as a powerful tool to engage teens, get them hooked on science, and push them into STEM careers. One of the artists hired by GE was George “Inky” Roussos from Batman. He drew stories for a series of books called “Adventures in Science”. The prints were huge – reaching as high as 3 million – and the series covered everything from space travel to electricity. Of course, there was strict quality control. According to a GE magazine, the “drawings were shown to several vice-presidents and managers” before their publication. You could almost call this task an advantage.
Today, GE Reports exists primarily online, but it still attracts millions of readers and viewers. Its main distribution vehicle, the GE Brief newsletter, has 70,000 subscribers. GE companies, including healthcare, energy, and aviation, have embraced stories and have their own engaging podcasts, video series, and blogs. As GE’s Chief Storyteller, I am proud, happy and inspired by the company’s rich history. I watched Reagan on “General Electric Theater,” read a lot of Vonnegut, and listened intently to Lang’s ideas, many of which still resonate with me over 100 years.
âI was very careful never to forget that I was a press man,â Lang wrote. “By that I mean I wouldn’t try to distribute a story that I didn’t think was newsâ¦ I think it was this careful handling of the news that made General Electric’s blue envelope a welcome arrival. to the editorial office “rather than going straight to the trash.
And so on, as Vonnegut would say, 100 years later.
This feature was originally posted by General Electric on GE.com.