As a minor contribution to the John Betjeman centenary celebrations I’d like to fill in a missing paragraph or two from the documented history of public relations. John Betjeman is not mentioned in Jacquie L’Etang’s study of Public Relations in Britain, yet there’s a case to be made for the poet and architectural writer to be considered one of the pioneering figures of public relations in twentieth century Britain.
Surely not… JB undoubtedly poured scorn on public relations just as he wished bombs would rain down on Slough. In his poem Executive (published in 1974) he satirises a spivvy public relations officer (PRO), associating him with many undesirable aspects of modernity. (Disclosure: this blog’s author spent five years working in PR consultancy in unfit-for-humans Slough).
You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.
So on what basis can I claim John Betjeman as a pioneering public relations practitioner?
- Betjeman rebranded himself by the time he went up to Oxford in the 1920s, dropping the second ‘n’ from the Germanic family name (his father retained the name Betjemann until he died). He also shrugged off his background in ‘trade’ to mix in aristocratic circles.
- ‘Failed in Divinity!’ This famous phrase from his verse autobiography Summoned by Bells makes a good story for the church-loving writer. But it’s not the whole truth (Betjeman is spinning his past). He did leave Oxford without a degree and with a lifelong hatred of his tutor C.S. Lewis, but the story of his academic failure is more complicated that he makes it out to be.
- He had an office at Shell-Mex House (and a copywriter’s salary of £800 a year) in the 1930s alongside Jack Beddington, the company’s celebrated publicity manager. From this emerged the Shell county guides in collaboration with the artist John Piper. The Shell guides are no longer in print, but they are a pioneering example of corporate sponsorship that survives today in the equivalent green and red Michelin guides. (This involvement has now been recorded in Sierk Horn’s chapter on Sponsorship in Exploring Public Relations.)
- Betjeman became press attaché to the senior British diplomat in Dublin in 1941. He thus had an important PR role ensuring continued Irish neutrality during the war (and was considered ‘the acceptable face of espionage’). There is some evidence that the IRA had marked him down for assassination believing him to be involved in intelligence gathering. If so, the Irish love of poetry may have helped save his life. Whilst there, he facilitated the filming of the French scenes in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, a morale-boosting propaganda film for the beleaguered British.
- Betjeman may have cultivated something of an ‘old fogey’ image, but was a master of new media from his days as a film critic for the Evening Standard newspaper through to his famous TV documentaries for the BBC.
- He was an active and effective campaigner, working as secretary for the Oxford Preservation Trust immediately after the war and co-founding the Victorian Society in 1958, thus helping to transform public attitudes to unfashionable industrial revolution buildings in Britain and successfully saving many buildings from demolition.
Betjeman’s PR past may only be a fragment of his life story, but given the centenary celebrations and Betjeman’s later fame as a popular poet laureate and campaigner for Britain’s architectural heritage, I believe he should be added to the early history of public relations in Britain. Does the CIPR make posthumous awards of the President’s medal? If so, there’s a strong case for Sir John Betjeman to receive one.
Summoned By Bells: John Betjeman and Oxford. Exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Oxford until 28 October 2006
Bevis Hillier (1988) Young Betjeman, John Murray
Bevis Hillier (2003) John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, John Murray
Sierk Horn (2006) Case study 21.1 in Sponsorship (chapter 27) in Exploring Public Relations
Jacquie L’Etang (2004) Public Relations in Britain, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Timothy Mowl (2000) Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman Versus Pevsner, John Murray
- The following anecdote is off-topic, but since all the named participants have since died I’ll record it in case it becomes lost. Betjeman the populariser and amateur had a well-recorded feud with the academic architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. Betjeman had all the best jokes, but Pevsner’s architectural guides remain the greater legacy. In the 1950s, my mother worked for Penguin Books as Pevsner’s secretary. One day she answered the phone to hear John Betjeman introducing himself and asking for some free books to be sent to him. Believing it to be a wind-up by a friend, she roared with laughter. There was a pause; then Betjeman rallied with ‘I’m glad to hear my name is considered a joke in Dr Pevsner’s office’.