From chal­leng­ing Ger­man pro­pa­ganda dur­ing the Great War to the lat­est cam­paign tack­ling ex­trem­ism, gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­main unique, John Tylee writes

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When you think of the ac­cusatory bom­bard­ment the gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion ma­chine faced through­out its cen­tury-long life – from be­ing the agent of nan­ny­ing politi­cians to be­ing com­plicit in their po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda – it should come as no surprise to learn that it was born amid con­flict.

The Great War still had 21 bloody months to run – and the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion was kick­ing off – in Fe­bru­ary 1917 when min­is­ters es­tab­lished a Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion. It be­gan a process that, 84 years later, led to the gov­ern­ment be­com­ing the UK’S big­gest ad­ver­tiser.

You might ar­gue – as the gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent com­mu­ni­ca­tion chief, Alex Aiken, does – that much hasn’t changed dur­ing those hun­dred years. Help­ing to trans­form peo­ple’s be­hav­iour at home while man­ag­ing Bri­tain’s rep­u­ta­tion abroad, in­clud­ing coun­ter­ing Rus­sia’s dis­sem­bling, has been its con­stant rai­son d’être.

What sparked that ma­chine to life in 1917, how­ever, was chal­leng­ing the kaiser’s pro­pa­ganda.

The PR cam­paign mounted against the Ger­mans, which had be­gun at the war’s out­break in 1914, was based very much on in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ment. A stellar group of literati – among them HG Wells, Rud­yard Ki­pling and Arthur Co­nan Doyle – was in­vited to a meet­ing in Lon­don by the then Bri­tish War Pro­pa­ganda Bu­reau and sev­eral agreed to write books and pam­phlets mak­ing the gov­ern­ment’s case.

The lit­er­ary link was car­ried for­ward into the Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion, whose first head was a newly pro­moted lieu­tenant colonel and for­mer army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer paid the princely sum of £1,000 a year. His name was John Buchan, author of The 39 Steps.

By early 1918, how­ever, the gov­ern-

ment, hav­ing de­cided to put pro­pa­ganda in the hands of a po­lit­i­cal heavy­weight, ap­pointed Daily Ex­press owner Lord Beaver­brook as min­is­ter of in­for­ma­tion.

With the armistice, the min­istry was felt to have out­lived its use­ful­ness. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, now de­volved to in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ment department­s, be­came half-hearted and spo­radic be­cause min­is­ters felt lit­tle need for it. Cam­paigns that did run were al­most ex­clu­sively de­voted to bol­ster­ing Bri­tain’s im­age abroad.

The re­turn of hos­til­i­ties in 1939 kick-started the gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion ma­chine again. Within a day of war be­ing de­clared on Ger­many, the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion was back in busi­ness. This was partly be­cause of an ur­gent need to fill gaps in pub­lic ser­vices caused by the draft­ing of so many men into uni­form, but also be­cause of an ac­knowl­edg­ment that main­tain­ing civil­ian morale would be cru­cial.

It started badly for the min­istry, which quickly gained a rep­u­ta­tion for bungling in­com­pe­tence and an as­so­ci­a­tion with lum­ber­ing bu­reau­cracy that its post-war suc­ces­sor, the Cen­tral Of­fice of In­for­ma­tion, found hard to shake off.

It was epit­o­mised by the dither­ing over the now-fa­mous “Keep calm and carry on” posters, of which 2.5 mil­lion copies were printed be­fore of­fi­cials

“What sparked the gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion ma­chine to life in 1917 was chal­leng­ing the kaiser’s pro­pa­ganda”

ex­pressed last-minute doubts about whether the mes­sage was too pa­tro­n­is­ing or ob­vi­ous. Un­able also to set­tle on an ap­pro­pri­ate time for the posters to run, the ma­jor­ity of them were pulped.

Lit­tle won­der the place broke the spirit of three min­is­ters of in­for­ma­tion. One of them, Duff Cooper, told Win­ston Churchill that he was quit­ting in 1941, af­ter one year in the job, be­cause his heart wasn’t in it. “I sup­pose it was my fault,” the prime min­is­ter said. “You should never har­ness a thor­ough­bred to a dung cart.”

Nev­er­the­less, the war years were the pe­riod when gov­ern­ment ad­ver­tis­ing hit its stride, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the News­pa­per So­ci­ety agreed to do its bit by of­fer­ing the gov­ern­ment a dis­count on the full rate for ad space.

Fa­mil­iar is­sues such as road safety and blood do­na­tion were pro­moted in news­pa­pers and on posters, along with more un­usual ones such as killing rats, not be­ing de­featist and curb­ing loose talk.

By the war’s end, gov­ern­ment

“While COI had a high de­gree of in­de­pen­dence, the prob­lem was that it had no friends in high places to fight its cor­ner” “Once seen as a ‘semi-re­tire­ment home’ for civil ser­vants seek­ing an un­de­mand­ing last post, COI be­gan tap­ping into ad­land’s tal­ent”

com­mu­ni­ca­tion had built up a suf­fi­cient head of steam to en­sure there would be no re­turn to the de­volved days of the in­ter­war years. Not least be­cause Cle­ment At­tlee’s 1945 Labour gov­ern­ment, elected on the prom­ise of rad­i­cal re­form, was ush­er­ing in the new Na­tional Health Ser­vice and a so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem in need of ob­jec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The up­shot was the for­ma­tion of COI in 1946. With more than 1,500 staff, it en­joyed a high de­gree of au­ton­omy from the be­gin­ning. De­ter­mined it should not be­come the Min­istry of Pro­pa­ganda, At­tlee or­dered that no gov­ern­ment min­is­ter should be given re­spon­si­bil­ity for it, although it was un­der the Trea­sury’s wing.

Not hav­ing its own min­is­ter, though, was a dou­ble-edged weapon. While it brought COI a high de­gree of in­de­pen­dence, the prob­lem was that it had no friends in high places to fight its cor­ner when the chips were down. This be­came sadly ap­par­ent when, as an ad­junct to the Cabi­net Of­fice, it was given the chop in 2011.

Sixty-five years ear­lier, though, it had a tidy an­nual bud­get of £15m and a big say in how this was to be spent. Os­ten­si­bly, gov­ern­ment department­s and pub­lic-sec­tor bod­ies could choose to ap­point their own agen­cies, but two

ma­jor ones – Trans­port for Lon­don and Na­tional Sav­ings & In­vest­ments – were never in COI’S fold.

Oth­ers, though, wel­comed COI’S hand-hold­ing, par­tic­u­larly those faced with run­ning pri­vati­sa­tion cam­paigns, such Young & Ru­bi­cam’s “Tell Sid” for Bri­tish Gas that pro­moted wider share own­er­ship among the pub­lic. COI han­dled 25 pri­vati­sa­tion cam­paigns be­tween 1981 and 1996, help­ing department­s through the com­plex f lota­tion “dance steps”.

These gov­ern­ment re­la­tion­ships pro­duced a string of iconic cam­paigns. None more so than the 1986 Aids aware­ness ac­tiv­ity through TBWA that warned “Don’t die of ig­no­rance” and its com­pelling demon­stra­tion that Bri­tish ad­ver­tis­ing could be an over­whelm­ing force for good.

But as the re­la­tion­ship with its “clients” changed – and COI be­gan be­ing paid out of de­part­men­tal bud­gets for the ser­vices it pro­vided – it was forced to grow more com­mer­cially as­tute. Once seen as a “semi-re­tire­ment home” for civil ser­vants seek­ing an un­de­mand­ing last post, COI be­gan tap­ping into ad­land’s tal­ent.

“Un­less you’re run­ning your own agency by the time you reach your early for­ties, you can feel very vul­ner­a­ble,” Peter Buchanan, a one-time Saatchi & Saatchi and Publi­cis se­nior man­ager who be­came COI’S deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive, says. “But these peo­ple had bags of ex­pe­ri­ence and we set out to hire them.”

This pol­icy was a ma­jor fac­tor in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of a COI reel crammed with award-win­ning work, much of it from up-and-com­ing cre­ative agen­cies that were nur­tured and en­cour­aged.

And if agen­cies were never go­ing to get rich on COI busi­ness, they never had to chase pay­ments, while creatives rel­ished the free­dom no other ac­counts al­lowed them.

This change in em­pha­sis also man­i­fested it­self at the very top of COI, where first Tony Dou­glas and later Carol Fisher set a trend for ap­point­ing heads from a mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing back­ground.

Alan Bishop, who suc­ceeded Fisher in 2003 and a for­mer Saatchi & Saatchi global chair­man, was a par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar fig­ure at COI’S North Lam­beth home. He brought the kind of ex­per­tise that COI prized, pro­vid­ing it with a user-friendly out­ward face and, through his cul­ti­va­tion of How­ell James, the first and only per­ma­nent sec­re­tary for gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion, en­sured COI’S voice was heard where it mat­tered. Bishop’s abid­ing love of the arts, though, led to his res­ig­na­tion in 2008 to be­come chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Southbank Cen­tre.

By the time Mark Lund re­placed him, COI ex­ec­u­tives could see the gov­ern­ment’s knives flash­ing. Steve Hil­ton, David Cameron’s strate­gist and one-time Saatchi & Saatchi ex­ec­u­tive, be­lieved peo­ple’s habits could be changed us­ing the right “nudges” rather than overt mes­sag­ing.

At the same time, there was a grow­ing be­lief among the Tories that much of COI’S out­put was po­lit­i­cally tinged and “nan­ny­ing”, while COI it­self was cre­at­ing a de­mand it had to ful­fil.

For their part, COI se­nior ex­ec­u­tives were re­sent­ful that they were be­ing made scape­goats for a gov­ern­ment mar­ket­ing spend of £530m – 40% of which went on ad­ver­tis­ing – that they had no power to con­trol.

Fight­ing for its life, COI pro­posed slash­ing staff from 650 to 150 and dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing its ac­tiv­ity. Whether or not this re­in­forced a long-stand­ing crit­i­cism that COI was a bloated or­gan­i­sa­tion is a moot point.

“You could make that ar­gu­ment,” a for­mer COI se­nior man­ager ac­knowl­edges. “In fact, the idea gained no trac­tion and we knew we’d reached the point of no re­turn.”

He and oth­ers might be for­given for their schaden­freude at the chaos that fol­lowed the de­ci­sion to shut COI with­out thought of the con­se­quences.

The Gov­ern­ment Pro­cure­ment Ser­vice, set up to cen­tralise pro­cure­ment and take over COI’S ad­ver­tis­ing re­mit, had no per­ma­nent spe­cial­ists with mar­ket­ing ex­per­tise. The re­sult­ing sham­bles so ap­palled the IPA that it passed an un­prece­dented mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the sys­tem.

Out of the mayhem emerged the Crown Com­mer­cial Ser­vice, boast­ing a wider re­mit and broader ex­per­tise than the GPS. It also saw the ar­rival of Aiken, West­min­ster City Coun­cil’s for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions chief, as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“He’s a re­doubtable and clear­think­ing fig­ure,” an as­so­ci­ate says. “What’s more, he’s done a lot of things COI was work­ing to­wards in terms of fewer and big­ger cam­paigns.”

With a mar­ket­ing spend of £250m to over­see, the CCS can be ex­pected to put an em­pha­sis on cam­paigns telling peo­ple how they can stay healthy and ease the pres­sure on an over­worked NHS. Any­thing that can help bring a re­turn on gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment, from boost­ing small busi­nesses to en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to be­come ap­pren­tices to stim­u­lat­ing in­ward in­vest­ment, may also get high pri­or­ity.

Oth­ers sug­gest gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion may also be forced to sail close to the po­lit­i­cal wind by help­ing to bring about so­cial co­he­sion in the post-brexit era. M&C Saatchi won a £60m brief to tackle ex­trem­ism last year. Aiken be­lieves it’s very easy to de­fine the line be­tween pub­lic in­for­ma­tion and po­lit­i­cal spin. “It’s never an is­sue,” he in­sists.

At the same time, the CCS has to bal­ance the need for cost-con­scious­ness and the temp­ta­tion to use PR and so­cial me­dia when more tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions are still needed. Aiken him­self ac­knowl­edges how well out-of-home per­formed in a re­cent trial cam­paign for univer­sal credit in Greater Manch­ester.

The CCS, no longer un­der the scru­tiny of an in­de­pen­dent Ad­vi­sory

Com­mit­tee on Ad­ver­tis­ing, un­like COI, has al­ready sprung some sur­prises. While new ros­ters were ex­pected to in­clude more re­gional and smaller shops, the ax­ing of long-time gov­ern­ment ros­ter shops such as Ab­bott Mead Vick­ers BBDO, Leo Bur­nett and Mccann Lon­don caused some dis­may.

One ob­server has de­scribed it as a “tick-box ex­er­cise” but sug­gests that agen­cies, ham­pered by the short amount of time given to com­plete the hun­dreds of ques­tions posed on the pro­cure­ment spec­i­fi­ca­tion, did them­selves no favours by as­sign­ing the job to ju­nior staff.

“It’s been painful,” a se­nior man­ager at an agency that found it­self un­ex­pect­edly dumped ad­mit­ted. “But while I don’t much like the new ros­ter, it does seem pretty sen­si­ble.”

Aiken be­lieves he has a sys­tem that will work while de­liv­er­ing op­ti­mum value for money – un­like COI, which, he con­tends, clearly did not. “We have built very good re­la­tion­ships with the cre­ative and PR in­dus­tries,” Aiken adds. “And I’m sure we have the best com­pa­nies in place.”

What re­mains to be seen is whether a gov­ern­ment ros­ter pop­u­lated by so many small agen­cies will be ef­fec­tive. The up­side is that those out­side Lon­don and the south-east may be closer to the is­sues in their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties than Soho shops.

And the down­side? “It may make it

harder to run an in­te­grated cam­paign if your agen­cies are in Manch­ester, Glas­gow and Bris­tol, and need to be talk­ing face-to-face,” Buchanan says. “You also have to ask if an agency with no more than 20 full-time staff has the nec­es­sary re­source.”

What’s cer­tain is that, in its cen­te­nary year, the gov­ern­ment’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion ma­chine re­mains unique.

Why? “Be­cause of the reper­toire of things in which it has to in­volve it­self,” a long-time ob­server says. “The com­mer­cial world doesn’t come close. Gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion is like water run­ning down­hill. The water might get blocked – but it al­ways finds a way through.”

Next week: A look back on 100 years of great Bri­tish ad­ver­tis­ing

“The GPS, which took over COI’S ad­ver­tis­ing re­mit, had no per­ma­nent spe­cial­ists. The re­sult­ing sham­bles ap­palled the IPA”

Top: ‘One more, Dave’ for drink-driving aware­ness by Leo Bur­nett, 1995; Above left: ‘Sarah Rivers Cribs’ for teenage road safety by M&C Saatchi, 2004; Above right: ‘Re­becca’ for anti-smok­ing by AMV, 2001

‘Cuppa’ for so­cial-worker re­cruit­ment by Leo Bur­nett, 2004

‘Si­mon We­ston’ for po­lice re­cruit­ment by M&C Saatchi, 2000

‘Green Cross Code Man’ for road safety by Ogilvy, Ben­son & Mather, 1971

‘Don’t die of ig­no­rance’ for Aids aware­ness by TBWA, 1986

‘Tell Sid’ for Bri­tish Gas by Young & Ru­bi­cam, 1986

Land Rover: ‘Good to see the Chelsea trac­tors in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment… but still doffs the cap to its King’s Road au­di­ence’ (LP)

Warner Bros: ‘Lots of fun… but feels like the kind of part­ner­ship you see now for many an­i­mated-char­ac­ter-based Hol­ly­wood films’ (LJB)

Paddy Power: ‘An in­sight­ful piece of work that em­pathises with the ev­ery­day and leaves you with a smile, hum­ming’ (LP)

Bri­tish Heart Foun­da­tion: ‘I’m left with a right­fully wor­ry­ing af­ter­taste’ (LP)

Gam­bleaware: ‘The voice of the gam­ble is bril­liantly ob­served’ (LJB)

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