Countdown to Christmas: Day 16

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Countdown to Christmas: Day 16

To mark Advent and celebrate success in the world of internal communication, I’m highlighting a story a day by internal communicators via my blog in a countdown to Christmas.

Every day until 24 December I am sharing the thoughts of IC pros who have written guest articles, with the final one going live on Christmas Eve.

I’ll then be taking a break and be back in January. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to my blog this year, it’s always good to feature new voices and a variety of writers and highlight what’s working well – and what there is to learn from situations that don’t go quite as planned.

Today is Day 16, if you’ve missed any of the previous articles, simply edit the number in the URL and you’ll have access to all the ones I’ve published to date.

The writer today is Richard Evans.

How the history of internal comms can be traced back to the 1920s

What did you want to be when you grew up? I’m assuming that ‘internal communication professional’ didn’t feature among the firefighter/actor/doctor/vet dreams that you had. I’ve written numerous times about the fact there is not one path that leads to IC.

Internal communication is often described as a relatively young profession, but what is its history? Where can it be traced back to?

Last year the Inside group of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) published a timeline of IC and I recently highlighted the sterling work that Kevin Ruck @academykevand Heather Yaxley @greenbanana undertook to trace the history of IC.

Kevin and Heather’s study discovered that the first formal employee publications can be dated back to 1840 and they were written by employees for employees. Then journalists took over and became “industrial editors” and for a long time “house organs” dominated practice.

Writing on his blog, Kevin states: “House organs were often used to counter organised labour in the 70s and 80s and to paint exciting visions of the future in the 90s. With very few exceptions, the voice of the employee was ignored. If history teaches us anything in this study, it is that challenges to established processes are often marginalised and the importance of employee voice has taken a very long time to be recognised. However, with growing professionalisation through education, practice may finally be changing.”

Richard Evans

Richard Evans is Head of Media for Diabetes UK and a biographer of Sir Basil Clarke (1879 – 1947), who is regarded as the UK’s first PR professional.

His book From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke is available from Amazon and you can find him on Twitter at @richardjaevans.

Over to you Richard…

How the history of internal communications can be traced back to the 1920s
The history of British public relations as a whole may be poorly chronicled, but I cannot think of a sub-section of it whose origins are vaguer than those of internal communications.

In a way, of course, internal communications has been around as long as free movement of labour; the need to keep employees happy being as obvious as that of paying them a competitive wage.

But in terms of internal communications being considered part of the profession of public relations, text books tend to see anything before the 1960s as ancient history.

In fact, until I started researching a biography of Basil Clarke, who is generally seen as the father of public relations in Britain, the only pre-1960s internal communications work I was aware of was that of Stephen Tallents (1884 – 1958) at the General Post Office.

But then I came across an obscure speech Clarke gave in 1926 that contained a reference to internal communications as an element of public relations. And given that in 1926 the British PR industry was under a decade old and our first PR agency – Clarke’s Editorial Services Ltd – had been around for just two years old, I’d say it’s a reasonable bet that it’s as early a reference as is likely to be found.

Man does not live by money-wages alone
As well as Clarke’s speech being interesting for PR history anoraks, by revealing the origins of internal communications, it contains an insight that could be valuable for practitioners working today.

Basil ClarkeLike internal communications theorists in recent years, Clarke understood that workers were rarely motivated purely by financial gain.

“The worker who gets no joy out of his work,” he told his audience, “who gets no more out of his job than the money-wages he is paid for it is underpaid, no matter how much money he earns. Man does not live by money-wages alone.”

But the difference between Clarke and more recent theorists is that his ideas were very much wedded to his time, speaking as he was just two months before the General Strike and after a period of acrimonious labour relations.

Clarke believed that what he called “industrial propaganda” could help take the “joy of the worker expressed in his work” that had existed in the old crafts that were then dying out in Britain and recreate it in an industrial setting.

He thought this should involve showing employees how their productivity benefitted them and their company, as “a great deal of good would accrue from giving all workers a better and wider conspectus of the part that they and their work play in their firm’s affairs than they are able to obtain from the narrow viewpoint of their own bench or loom or machine or desk”.

He thought this pride could be instilled in workers through an understanding of how a company’s product was superior to that of its competitors. And if instilling pride did not work, then fear could also be used as an alternative motivating factor.

Clarke gave the example of a Midlands firm that had placed competitors’ adverts around its own site. “I venture to think that the British worker, who is as cute as any other, would take in that little implication that he would see what his firm was up against in selling in that market,” he said. 

While he thought “industrial propaganda” represented a huge opportunity, he didn’t underestimate the challenges it entailed. “It involves the most difficult and delicate type of propaganda work that can be imagined,” he explained.

And this from the man who had been responsible for British propaganda during the Irish War of Independence!

Post author: Richard Evans.

When this article was originally published, Heather Yaxley wrote the following comment:

Thanks for the further reference to the work that Kevin Ruck and I have undertaken this year. The papers from the International History of PR conference (including our own) are available now at:http://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/historyofpr/proceedings/. This site also includes the call for abstracts for the 2014 conference for anyone else interested in the history of IC.

I think that Sir Basil Clarke’s work is definitely worth understanding, particularly in the context of its time (I have the book ready for reading when the Autumn evenings start drawing in).

However, I am disappointed by the emphasis placed on the 1920s as being origins of British PR and/or IC. Does it really matter who or what came first?

Let’s appreciate the history that is only just being discovered/uncovered/recovered and appreciate the richness it offers which is certainly preferable to the simplistic ‘stages of progression’ approach which has dominated to date.

The past has much to offer today’s IC and PR, which we never gained from viewing our contemporary practice as ‘better’ than what came before.

Note to readers – the paper that Heather and Kevin produced can be found from page 331 in this link: http://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/historyofpr/files/2010/11/IHPRC-2013-Proceedings.pdf –
Rachel Miller

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