What can we learn from the past 100 years?

Blog post by Jessie Beham, GCS Professional Development Team

Thursday 9 March 2017

Monday 6 March saw the launch of 'A Celebration: 100 Years of Government Communications'. It was in 1917 that the government of the day set up the Ministry of Information. 100 years later, we are the GCS.

Howell James, former Permanent Secretary of Government Communications, John Rentoul, Chief Political Commentator for The Independent, Selvin Brown, Director of Engagement and Policy,  and Gemmaine Walsh, Director of Communications joined a panel discussion chaired by Gabriel Milland, Deputy Director GCS to discuss key lessons to be learnt from the last century of government communications work.

Working to put together this project, I have learnt a lot about the past which has been surprisingly easy to relate to the challenges we continue to face today.


Trust is built on truth

In the Second World War, the Ministry of Information made its first use of qualitative research and showed that people wanted the Government to trust them with information – good and bad. In Churchill’s own phrase, once the British people felt they were not being lied to or patronised, they showed every sign of being willing to “keep buggering on”.

The purpose of government communications continues to be to create a well-informed democracy who can make judgements on the issues of the day. The issue of people believing so-called ‘fake news’, which was always there and continues today, puts a very high premium on government communications.


Move with the pace of technology

Sir Stephen Tallents, who ran the Empire Marketing Board in the 1920s, understood the role technology had to play in reaching audiences. In his own words, he saw “Film, radio, poster and exhibition as the sextant and compass which would manoeuver citizenship over the new democratic distances”. It was a philosophy which inspired Whitehall to grapple with the arrival of the internet seven decades later.

The speed of development can be fast: during the panel, Howell James talked about how, when he worked for the John Major government, the idea of 24 hour news was Cefax! Now, our press offices have to reactively manage media relations 24/7, as well as the more fragmented world of social media and digital. Gemmaine Walsh certainly never expected to be signing off GIFs related to bills running through parliament when she started in the field!


Communications is a science

In the 1920s, it was also the newly-born Empire Marketing Board who were the first to understand that targeting different audiences with tailored messaging increased effectiveness. Women were specifically targeted as key consumers via the BBC through a series of “Household talks”. Children were targeted through schools.

Audience segmentation is now a standard part of campaign design, with further developed insight and analytics tools even allowing us opportunities to adjust campaigns mid-way which in the past would have been signed off and ‘done and dusted’.


Prove your worth

Evaluation on the Green Cross Code campaign of the late 1960s, fronted by Dave Prowse, later to find even greater fame as Darth Vader, showed a drop of 11 per cent in child casualties.

Evaluation of the GREAT campaign which promotes the UK abroad showed economic returns of £2.2bn from its launch in 2012 to March 2016, providing an economic return on government investment of over 20:1.

Proving the worth of comms is key to continuing our role in alleviating social problems and building the economy of the country.


Communications leadership is essential

Just after World War 2, a committee of senior civil servants from the Central Office of Information– most of them not communications professionals – launched a “Prosperity Campaign” designed to persuade that post-war sacrifices were essential through the deployment of indigestible key messages. It finally took communications professionals to point out that presentation is everything, boiling down the objectives to messages as simple as “Export or Die”.


The past 100 years, with its successes and its failures, does indeed give us motivation to keep updating best practice and to continue to professionalise and push our profession to the decision-making level of government.

Hear from Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communications and Bonnie and Giorgio, GCS apprentices, on how government communications has evolved over the last 100 years and will continue to change in the future.

Bonnie and Giorgio have also created an online museum showcasing the history of the campaigns that have shaped the way we as government communicators work. Visit the online museum here.

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