Westco - Blog images-Feb-13-2023-05-24-00-2492-PM


Westco’s Director of Communications, SIMON JONES, researched the history of UK public sector communication over the past 100 years, interviewing key people and researching relevant books/studies. Here is his top ten lessons starting from 1918 to the modern day which still hold true today…

Lesson 1: Trust is built on truth, not propaganda

Basil Clarke was the first to really understand the importance of building trust through honesty.  There had been no significant opposition to the war in Britain before the 1918 armistice but that changed in subsequent years when stories of German atrocities were shown to be embellished. It was a lesson that Clarke was determined to press home in the early 1920s when Ireland was in the throes of an armed rebellion against British rule.

“Public and press opinion alike are more easily and more quickly influenced by news than by views.”

Clarke’s approach stressed the importance of presenting news truthfully, albeit with greater emphasis on facts that supported the case. He saw credibility as the PR practitioner’s most valuable tool. When he set up what was perhaps Britain’s first professional PR agency in 1924, Editorial Service, he launched the first code of ethics which emphasised truthfulness and disclosure about who the actual client was when attempting to win coverage. In the years that followed these lessons were occasionally forgotten.  

In the Second World War the Ministry of Information’s campaigns were seen as patronising. The first use of qualitative research showed that people wanted the Government to trust them with information – good and bad. In Churchill’s own phrase, once the British people felt they were not being lied to or patronised, they showed every sign of being willing to “keep buggering on”.


Lesson 2: The need for science in campaigns

In the 1920s the newly-born Empire Marketing Board was the first to use multi-channel campaigns with audience segmentation to achieve the outcomes set.

When Britain’s economic health, largely borne out of trade with the Empire, came under threat in the 1920s from the new commercial power of the United States and Japan, the Government resisted the temptation to rely wholly on tariffs and relied on effective communications instead. One innovation was the EMB’s Christmas pudding-based campaigns showing how the chef to King George V incorporated ingredients from across the Empire, ranging from cloves from Zanzibar to rum from Jamaica. One “Buy British” campaign involved posters in 450 cities and towns. The launch of the EMB saw, for the first time in peacetime, communications elevated into a vital tool of policy.  

The Empire Marketing Board was the first to understand that targeting different audiences with tailored messaging increased effectiveness.  Women were specifically targeted as key consumers via the BBC through a series of “Household talks”. Children were targeted through schools.  Sir Stephen Tallents, the overseer of the EMB, told a parliamentary committee that while butter consumption increased by 9 per cent between 1929 and 1932, butter imported through Empire had increased by 50 per cent.  Taller was the father of “nation branding” and laid the groundwork for the GREAT campaign.


Lesson 3: Communications has to be ahead of the curve on technology

Sir Stephen Tallents understood the role technology had to play in reaching audiences. In his own words, he saw “Film, radio, poster and exhibition as the sextant and compass which would manoeuver citizenship over the new democratic distances”. It was a philosophy which inspired Whitehall to grapple with the arrival of the internet as an everyday tool of communication seven decades later. The first UK government website was wholly unofficial and the brainchild of a young Treasury economist, Owen Barder, who took the idea of putting the 1993 Budget up on the embryonic web to HMT’s management board where it was enthusiastically backed by the Permanent Secretary, Terry Burns.  

In a blog remembering the episode, Barder wrote: “We got the text of the budget documents as ASCII files on 3.5″ disks from the typesetters, and I worked through the night, using a basic text editor to put the HTML codes into the files manually. I finished marking up the pages about an hour before the Budget Speech began; and we went live as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down at the end of his speech.” So novel was this move that Barder got to choose HMT’s domain name - hm-treasury.gov.uk - thereby creating a precedent still reflected by “gov.uk” today.

Among the Phillis Review’s recommendations in 2004 was the creation of a single government website rather than the free-for-all which was to characterise most online government communications and citizen-facing services until gov.uk’s arrival eight years later in 2012.


Lesson 4: Strong internal communications help external aims

Sir Stephen Tallents realised the importance of strong internal communications in helping to achieve wider communications aims. The Royal Mail, often bedevilled in the1930s by bad industrial relations, was used in 1936 to boost the Union shortly after the formation of the SNP. Tallents sought artistic inspiration by commissioning a film, Night Mail, which chronicled the journey of the mail express between England and Scotland as an emotive attempt to send a message of union between the two countries. 

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door

Yet Tallents realised the power of staff as ambassadors and the importance of strong internal communications to inspire them. His golden touch included the creation of the Post Office Magazine. The quality of the publication was so high it became a huge public success with an external circulation of over 300,000.


Lesson 5: Communications leadership and strategy is essential

The onset of World War II illustrated the need for communications leadership to help shape strategy. As mass communications were becoming ever more pervasive thanks to radio and ever-growing cinema audiences, a shadow “Ministry of Information” was created with Tallents himself appointed Director-General designate.  Yet as the war came closer, Tallents found his hands tied by career civil servants with no communications background. This was to have catastrophic consequences. From the start of the war, the MOI was to have five main broad functions: Release of official news; Censorship of films, press and BBC; Maintenance of morale; Conduct of publicity campaigns for other departments and propaganda to other countries.

The last of these was jettisoned quickly. Some of the MOI campaigns also drew public scorn. One poster which had the message “Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory” was seen as patronising and created a sense of “them and us” between Government and citizens. The mistake was repeated in 1946-47 when the Central Office of Information was born. A committee of senior civil servants – most of them not communications professionals – launched a “Prosperity Campaign” designed to persuade that post-war sacrifices were essential through the deployment of indigestible key messages. It finally took communications professionals to point out that  presentation is everything, boiling down the objectives to messages as simple as “Export or Die”.


Lesson 6: Insight has to shape strategy

What saved the Ministry of Information from irrelevance during World War II was the use of insight to help shape future strategy. The pioneer in this area was Mass Observation – founded by the anthropologist Tom Harrison – which was the first to use qualitative techniques by using “observers” across the country to compile diaries based on conversations with friends, neighbours and workmates. This barometer of national mood was part of the basis for forming the MOI’s Home Intelligence Division.

Initially seen as controversial, it was used to gauge the effectiveness of Government campaigns on subjects as varied as air raid precautions to warnings about venereal disease. Germany had a similar system in place, run via local Nazi Party offices, but in a totalitarian state, the population did not provide honest answers. By 1941 the insight showed that MOI exhortations were having no effect.

What mattered was the sense that the government trusted the people to be honest with them about how the war - one which the overwhelming majority of the population felt Britain had no choice but to prosecute - was progressing. As one famous Home Intelligence report from 1941 stated, the British people “showed a very degree of common sense”. There was little need for propaganda.


Lesson 7: Media control rarely works

Attempts to control the media have often backfired. During the second world war police officers were deployed, under Home Office instruction, to seize newspapers once the presses started to roll on a story that British forces were engaged in France in an offensive against Germany, initially sanctioned by the Ministry of Information only for the War Office to overturn.  Roadblocks were erected in Fleet Street and newspaper trains were stopped en route from London. The situation was widely described as one of ‘chaos’ and ‘complete confusion’.

The ministry’s reputation further suffered from its heavy-handed censorship of air-raid casualties and the bungled announcement of Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain in May 1941.  During the Falklands conflict relations between correspondents and their MOD handlers were so bad that Michael Nicholson of ITN prefaced his bulletins with statements that they were being censored. Journalists occasionally found ways to get round the rules. This included BBC Correspondent Brian Hanrahan’s famous line: “I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”

Concerns inside the war cabinet over the possibility that relations with the press would turn so toxic that they affect the success of the operation eventually led to the return of background briefings with defence correspondents. When it came to Britain’s next major overseas war in the Iraq conflict the MOD was much better prepared, although heavy cynicism surrounded pooled reports from embedded reporters whose autonomy was virtually nil.


Lesson 8: Evaluation needed to prove return on investment

The wartime communications apparatus, largely preserved in times of peace, was a major target of the Conservative government in 1951 led by Churchill with options including the closure of the newly-formed Central Office of Information. In 1931 there were only 45 people employed wholly or partially in government publicity with a total communications spend of £30 million at 2017 prices. By 1945 1,600 people worked at the COI at a cost of £200 million.

The advice from the Treasury was that closing the COI would actually cost rather than save money, but large parts of the COI were still axed. It took until the 1960s and 1970s to realise the importance of communications to tackle social problems, which coincided with the golden age of British advertising and the birth of agencies like the Saatchi brothers. Drunk driving, rabies awareness, unwanted pregnancy, smoking, road safety, dangers of strangers, AIDs and drug taking were all tackled. Evaluation on the Green Cross Code campaign fronted by Dave Prowse, later to find even greater fame as Darth Vader, showed a drop of 11 per cent in child casualties.  The “Clunk Click!” campaign designed to increase seat belt use eventually showed an increase in usage from 14 to 32.4 per cent. 


Lesson 9: Clear lines are required between Civil Service and politics

The Blair Government understood the power of strategic communications and the power of a central grid. Communications enjoyed a seat on the top table of Government but the approach provided pitfalls. The Jo Moore affair, which led to the departure of both a special adviser and a civil service director of communications, showed how the borderline between the civil service and political communications had become difficult to police. The episode prompted a review by Sir Bob Phillis which recommended that seven principles should guide Government communications:

  • Openness, not secrecy.
  • More direct, unmediated communications with the public.
  • Genuine engagement with the public as part of policy formation and delivery, not communication as an afterthought.
  • Positive presentation of government policies and achievements, not misleading spin.
  • Use of all relevant channels of communication, not excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters.
  • Coordinated communication of issues that cut across departments, not conflicting or duplicated departmental messages.
  • Reinforcement of the civil service's political neutrality, rather than a blurring of government and party communications.

In many ways, the Phillis Review can be seen as the founding document of the Government Communication Service as it now exists.


Lesson 10: Need for competencies in communications

The first recognition of the need for competencies first came in the aftermath of World War II when a review under the chairmanship of Treasury mandarin Sir James Crombie set out the formal role of “Information Officers”, what they should be paid and what their terms of employment should be. Information officers’ responsibilities were to “create and maintain an informed public opinion: to use methods of publicity to help a department to achieve its purpose.”

Yet it took the launch of the Government Communications Network, following the Phillis Review, six decades later to really embed modern professional standards with the first structured development programme, Engage and Evolve. The GCN, for the first time, brought press officers into the same organisation as other communications professionals. The renewed focus on standards and ethics also brought renewed scrutiny on costs which eventually led to the demise of the COI in 2012   Out went the recently created GCN to be replaced by the Government Communications Service with a focus on both efficiency, high professional standards and cross-department working.  

For the first time, there was a stress on communications proving its worth to sit at the top table as one of the five levers of government along with taxing, spending, legislating and regulating.


Author: Before entering the public communications sector, Simon worked as an editor and journalist for national newspapers in the Uk. Since then, he has worked at Director level in communications, policies and strategy for over 14 years. During that time, for four years, he was the Chair of LGcomms, the professional development body for local government communicators.


Get in touch for assistance with communication that will deliver results. 

Tag specific related blog posts

If you would like to get in touch, use our nifty form below.

Get in Touch


Contact Us