Journalist, propagandist and public relations adviser Sir Basil Clarke (1879-1947) has some claim to be considered the father of British public relations. He now has a full-length biography, written by Richard Evans (whose day job is head of media for Diabetes UK).
Clarke made his name as a fearless war reporter for the Daily Mail, but he gained his knighthood for his work as a British propagandist in Ireland in the years immediately before Irish independence. His legacy to the industry comes from his establishing of Editorial Services, a pioneering public relations agency later absorbed into Burson-Marsteller.
Histories of public relations, mostly written from a US perspective, give prominence to Ivy Lee and his Declaration of Principles. Clarke is his UK equivalent.
As a published writer, there is good source material for Clarke’s life and Evans does a good job of weaving the sources into a compelling narrative. While the events of the first half of Clarke’s life are the most interesting, it’s only in the later chapters that we learn something about the early years of public relations.
Clarke’s first PR role was for the Ministry of Reconstruction, in 1917. His duties were listed as ‘getting matters connected with this ministry inserted in the daily Press, interviewing journalists, discussing the matter of the work of the Ministry of Reconstruction with distinguished foreigners… and in keeping in touch with what is being done in foreign countries with regard to Reconstruction.’
His record in Ireland remains controversial, but from Clarke’s perspective his goal was ‘propaganda by news’. In other words, the unadorned truth was a more effective tool than manufactured or distorted news. There’s clearly an echo of his work as a war reporter here, and a premonition of the thousands of apparently objective news releases written by public relations practitioners. Propaganda, let’s remember, only gained its negative associations a few decades later.
In another prediction of the problems facing all PR practitioners, Clarke struggled to get colleagues to accept ‘propaganda by news’. Evans writes: ‘Clarke is far from alone in this; the history of public relations is littered with examples of people who identified the right approach but were then unable to win support for it within their organisation.’
Clarke’s career in government suffered from changes of policy towards publicly-funded publicity. As one memo records: ‘The Chancellor has set his face firmly against the policy of spending the taxpayers’ money to tell the taxpayer how his money is being spent.’ Ouch.
In 1924, after a period out of work, Clarke set up Editorial Services Ltd, the UK’s first public relations agency. As a pioneer, he had to grapple with the questions of definition, ethics and professional status that have concerned practitioners ever since.
Here’s how he explains the difference between public relations and advertising: ‘While our Press work will sell nothing and does not aim to sell, it nevertheless creates an atmosphere of greater and more enlightened public interest in a commodity, or idea, or service, generically – in other words, creates an atmosphere in which sales are much more easily effected.’ This from a previously unknown publication identified by the author and dating from around 1934.
If Clarke’s government work was ‘propaganda by news’, his intention with Editorial Services is evident in the choice of name. This was to be ‘publicity by news’ and Clarke seems to have avoided the stunts associated with Edward Bernays around this time in the US.
Though most of the work was aimed at news coverage, Clarke also wrote speeches for King George V and was involved in ‘industrial propaganda’ (ie internal communication). Clarke thought this ‘the most difficult and delicate type of propaganda work that can be imagined.’
He also defended the ethics of press agentry:
‘Why, then, is the press agent to be condemned if he offers, free of charge, some “copy” or information which the editor may like to publish and which he can always thrown away… if he does not? Does the fact of its being a press agent’s copy, and therefore publicity copy, automatically condemn it, destroy its news-value, vitiate its interests for the public? Of course not. For it is one of the truths the editor knows from his editorial cradle that virtually every single item in the paper is publicity for some person, cause or thing.’
The author is sceptical about Clarke’s argument: ‘The large number of people working in public relations today is proof that Clarke was right about the usefulness of public relations. But he was wrong to see it as just another source of news and many people today argue that the media’s reliance on public relations has become extremely damaging.’
In 1930, Clarke set out a code of practice for public relations practitioners, calling for an end to anonymity in public relations (he was grappling with the issue we call transparency today). Other aspects of the code related to receiving a professional fee rather than accepting payment by results; respecting the independence of journalists; and calling for the inclusion of footnotes in press releases giving the sources for the claims made. It was not until decades later that the professional bodies published their own codes of practice.
In describing the aptitudes required for a public relations role, Clarke identified the need for broad understanding as well as narrow technical skills:
‘The duties of a press agent who is directing or advising in the public relations of a big undertaking or movement demand something more than ordinary journalistic qualifications. They demand a knowledge of men and affairs more comparable with an editor’s knowledge; a certain aptitude for, and knowledge of, business and administration which a journalist need not necessarily possess.’
Today, we still debate whether public relations should sit alongside journalism in a media school, or alongside marketing in a business school.
I’ll leave the final word to author Richard Evans:
‘For all the attempts by academics to theorise about it and the efforts of the industry itself to become more respectable, and despite the rise of 24-hour news and then social media, it is remarkable just how little change there has been in the tactics used in public relations and in the ethical dilemmas facing those who use them. This means that even though just a tiny proportion of those working in public relations have today even heard of Basil Clarke, all of them are walking down the trail he blazed.’