It’s been said that companies like people have lifespans and so their emergence and decline over a period of years ought to be expected as the natural order of things.

But a tragedy is unfolding in Rochester, NY, and to borrow a phrase from Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid.”

One of the greatest companies in U.S. history, and owner of one of the world’s most iconic brands, appears to have begun its death rattle.

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page story Thursday, “Kodak Teeters on the Brink,” reads like an obituary written for a person over whom last rights are being read.

The company’s impending bankruptcy is sad for Kodak employees and retirees and their families, to whom the company long was known as “The Great Yellow Father.”

It’s sad for a community that prospered for so many decades as a direct result of Kodak philanthropy, and for chroniclers of U.S. commerce and industry to see Kodak going the way of U.S. Steel, Pan American Airlines, and F.W. Woolworth.

And it’s sad for the public relations profession because, not so long ago, Kodak’s corporate communications division set the global standard for respect commanded by the PR function in a corporate environment.

I know this because I worked in Rochester from 1981-1992, first as a Kodak account supervisor for Carl Byoir & Associates, then in media relations as a Kodak employee, and finally as Kodak Global Account Director for Hill and Knowlton.

At its zenith in the mid-1980s, more than 250 people worked in Kodak’s corporate communications department under the leadership of David J. Metz, a PR visionary and dynamic leader who knew how to navigate the corridors of corporate power.

Metz was among the first corporate PR officers to establish a direct reporting relationship to his CEO. While the great majority of his peers at other companies labored under the thumb of Marketing or HR or Legal, he was meeting every weekday for half an hour at 8 AM with Kodak’s chief executive.

In these briefing sessions, Metz, who served three Kodak CEOs, provided an overview of everything in the world that had happened during the previous 24 hours that had the potential to impact Kodak’s reputation or Kodak’s brand.

Under the umbrella of his organization were corporate and marketing media relations, corporate advertising, investor relations, employee communications, federal/state/local government relations, the corporate library, and a unit called Creative Services staffed by of speechwriters, designers and filmmakers.  Plus – Kodak retained three outside PR agencies including mine.

It wasn’t the size of the organization that mattered, though. It was the clout. The product publicists had solid lines to Corporate, and dotted lines to the operational units they supported. This structure helped keep PR from being marginalized. If a divisional VP didn’t value PR and resented having to pay the corporate service tax imposed on his line of business, he thought twice about squawking too loudly because it meant with going mano-a-mano versus Metz.

The intellectual underpinning and justification for PR’s powerful influence was a doctrine known as “One Voice,” since adopted by scores of companies. “One Voice” posits that a multinational corporation issues thousands of messages every day to myriad constituencies. Each message should be nuanced for the intended recipient BUT the company must speak with a single corporate voice to ensure messages aimed at one audience don’t have unintended consequences for another.

It was a glorious time and place for PR and might yet be if Kodak management had embraced digital imaging in the late 1970s instead of squandering time and money on failed ventures like instant photography, disc cameras, and office copiers.

Friday morning’s announcement that Kodak’s current PR director has resigned seems a fitting if ironic denouement, now that the company best known the world over for preserving people’s memories seems about to pass into memory itself.  

Robert McEwen is president and CEO of Zing USA