Let’s raise a glass to the 100th anniversary of the UK PR industry

By Richard Evans

People have been doing public relations – or something a bit like it – since the start of mankind. So putting your finger on when the public relations profession started is an inexact science.

But if you were pushed to identify a single event that marks the beginning of the UK public relations industry, then your best bet would be something that happened at the end of 1917. If you do the maths, this means that, right now, our industry is going through the centenary of its birth.

And yet there are no parties or memorial lecture to mark the occasion, and the reason is simple: almost no one knows about it.

The careers of people like CIPR founder Stephen Tallents and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, may be lionised. But the man behind the start of the UK PR industry is someone you probably haven’t heard of.

As much as Christopher Addison is remembered today, it’s for his role in Clement Attlee’s government and, two decades previously, leading the government’s focus on post-First World War house building. But before all that, he was Minister of Reconstruction during the First World War, responsible for preparing the country for the end of the War.

He clearly had an interest in propaganda. During the War he sent messages to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, urging him to use “vigorously prosecuted propaganda” in enemy countries and to set up “a large central propaganda section” to help the government cope with a hostile press.

So given his interest in public opinion, it is no great surprise that he decided to enlist someone to help him with propaganda in his own Ministry.

The job fell to war reporter Basil Clarke, formerly of the Daily Mail and the Guardian, who was sounded out for the job by the businessman Sir Alexander Roger and started at the end of 1917 (we don’t know the exact date) at a salary of £600. It was a new role that went unremarked on even at the time, but it was to prove the start of what has grown into a multi-billion pound industry.

It was not that Clarke was the first person whose job it was to try to shift public opinion; this was something people did in government as part of a wider role, while propaganda had been a big part of the war effort. But Clarke is likely to have been the first person in the UK to have considered himself a public relations practitioner.

His time at the Ministry of Reconstruction was not particularly auspicious. His biggest success was a series of articles for The War Illustrated about ‘When the Boys Come Home’, but their turgid explanations of rural development policy must have seemed pretty thin gruel to a readership used to stories of derring do.

Clarke was sufficiently frustrated by life in government to anonymously write a Yes, Minister-style satire of the civil service. And the rest of his career wasn’t easy, either. He had an extremely difficult time leading the British propaganda during the Irish War of Independence and after setting up the UK’s first PR agency, Editorial Services Ltd, he would claim that “as one of the bigger press agents in the country, I am catching on my back the blows which should fall on other shoulders”.

Yet he also had a huge impact. He created the world’s first ever public relations code of ethics. And when he died in 1947, the Daily Mail called him the “doyen” of public relations officers.

So this Christmas, let’s raise a glass to the 100th anniversary of Addison appointing Clarke to the Ministry of Reconstruction. Their story may have been mostly forgotten, but that does not change its significance. The fact is that all if us working in the profession today are standing on their shoulders.

Richard Evans is the author of  From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke. You can find his blog here.

Image courtesy of flickr user Leonard Bentley

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