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On the frontline: 100 years and beyond

Blog posted by: Alex McKenna, historian, 8 July 2021.

I recently presented my paper, ‘Truth’s Bodyguards: A History of British Government Communication from John Buchan to Brexit’ at the International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) that was meant to be held in Boston, USA in June 2020 but was postponed and transferred online a year later. The Executive Director of Government Communication, Alex Aiken asked me to prepare a paper that would highlight elements of my 2018 book 100 Years of Government Communication and promote further discussion of this important period and sphere of governmental history.

The audience I was addressing was particularly important, given that IHPRC is one of the leading global gatherings of academic experts in the field. In practice, most of the contributors were from British or American institutions, with the host universities of Boston and Bournemouth well represented alongside King’s College London, the London College of Communication, Liverpool University and the University of Ulster.

The purpose of my paper was to tell the story of British government communication over the past century, from the murky beginnings of the original Department of Information under the novelist John Buchan, to a present-day quest for accuracy. Avoiding simple narrative chronology, my presentation sought to show through a number of key themes how communicators came in from the cold to become a powerful and globally respected profession at the heart of the modern British Civil Service: engaging with public opinion, shaping policy and actively combatting the ‘new’ threat of fake news.

Given that I originally submitted my proposal to the conference organisers in 2019, there was no way of me knowing the enormous impact COVID-19 (coronavirus) would have on the story of government communication. With the conference postponed for a year, I adapted my presentation to draw parallels with some of the historical communication examples originally outlined in my book. This included looking back from ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ to ‘Keep calm and carry on’ in 1939; comparing the apocalyptically blunt ‘AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign of 1986 with the less shocking—but no less serious— coronavirus public health adverts of today; and highlighting how the daily televised Downing Street press briefings at the height of the pandemic were not as unprecedented as was sometimes made out.

Colleagues in the room commented on the evolution of the government’s communication structures over the century often in the face of sceptical politicians. Winston Churchill’s hostility to the Central Office of Information (COI) and formal Press Office structures was a particularly notable example of this, perhaps because he was a great communicator himself, rather than in spite of it. The partnership between government and commercial advertising agencies in creating some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the last 7 decades was also discussed. Two books were mentioned, Sam Delaney’s ‘Mad Men and Bad Men’ (2015)—an accessible and entertaining look at the recent history of advertising and politics (albeit of a more party political sort) and the forthcoming academic text from Routledge: ‘Political Communication in the Time of Coronavirus’.

As a 3 day conference, IHPRC offered much more besides discussion of my own topic. Either side of my own presentation there were very interesting papers on the US War Refugee Board’s public relations during the Second World War, on teaching Public Relations and on The National American Woman Suffrage Association Press Bureau.

Altogether such a rich variety of subjects made one acutely aware of the world beyond narrowly defined political communication and how current practitioners can benefit from taking a wider historical view. For my own part, I hope that my paper demonstrated that in times of conflict and crisis—not only today but over the past century—government communication has repeatedly taken centre stage; justifying former Director General of the COI Fife Clark’s 1970 declaration that “public policy and public relations cannot be separated.”

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