John Grierson and the Public Relations Industry in Britain

Uploaded 1 July 1999


Within the public relations community the use of, and relationship between, the terms “propaganda” and “public relations” has changed over time. Throughout this article the terms “propaganda” and “public relations” are used interchangeably as they were in the particular historical context or as in the original sources: although this might seem confusing, it is more historically authentic. In the 1920s and 1930s public relations was quite often defined as a technique of propaganda, but after World War II this terminological hierarchy was reversed and propaganda was seen as one of the tools of public relations. Up to the mid-1950s some practitioners writing in the Institute of Public Relations journal, Public Relations, still used the terms interchangeably. Nevertheless the term “propaganda” became increasingly seen as a feature of totalitarian régimes and, as public relations began to professionalise post-World War II, it became important for practitioners to try to distinguish their practice from such notions in order to gain social acceptance.

Grierson’s ideas and their resonance in public relations

The main focus of Grierson’s thinking could be described as the role of propaganda in social or democratic education and social responsibility, and it is echoes of this that one can detect in public relations discourse.

Grierson’s education at Glasgow University was typical of the Scottish educational tradition. He studied a number of subjects including philosophy to gain an Ordinary degree (not an Honours Degree). [1] After graduating he worked as an administrator at the University of Durham but maintained a strong interest in academic life and subsequently obtained a research studentship at the University of Chicago. [2] During his stay in America Grierson heard lectures on public opinion and social philosophy by Merrriam, Park and Lasswell, [3] and was exposed to an intellectual environment influenced by a number of writers pessimistic about democracy and fearful of the massification of society which might result in the breaking down of some traditional religious and social hierarchies (Le Bon, Wallas, Park, Trotter). [4] Apparently under the influence of Lasswell, Grierson’s interest shifted from the effect of immigration on social problems in the US to the potential of film as a mass medium that could help break down the barriers to an informed citizenship. Recollecting the origins of the Documentary Film Movement, Grierson wrote:

…the British documentary group began not so much in affection for film per se as in affection for national education…its origins lay in sociological rather than aesthetic aims. Many of us…were impressed by the pessimism that had settled on Liberal theory. We noted the conclusion of men such as Walter Lippman, that because the citizen under modern conditions, could not know everything about everything all the time…democratic citizenship was therefore impossible. We…turned to the new wide-reaching instruments of radio and cinema as necessary instruments in both the practice of government and the enjoyment of citizenship. [5]

Dramatically, he argued that:

[d]emocracy was in danger of collapse, because its citizens did not know how to make it work. The weakness, therefore, was essentially in the realm of public education and information. The vast possibilities of the new mass media… had not been spotted as the key to the problem. Film, because of its obvious mass popularity, and the vividness of the visual image…was an obvious choice as a medium in which to put the theory into practice. [6]

Thus, educatory films were seen by Grierson as a solution because they could “do something to bridge the gap between the citizen and the wide world”,[7] because even “[i]f you can’t teach the citizenry to know everything about everything all the time, you can given them comprehension of the dramatic patterns within a living society”.[8] Grierson saw education as an instrument for social action, [9] declaring that:

…its function is the immediate and practical one of being a deliberate social instrument – not dreaming in an ivory tower, but outside on the barricades of social construction, holding citizens to the common purpose their generation has set for them. Education is activist or it is nothing. [10]

These themes were echoed by one eminent public relations practitioner in the mid-1950s, Alan Campbell-Johnson who commented on:

…the growing gulf between the active and passive elements in our community – the leaders and the led, the experts and the laymen, the players and the spectators. To cope with this cleavage, intensified as it is by the industrial and technical revolution around us is, I believe, the central function of public relations…[T]he solidarity we seek can only be achieved by breaking up the mass into ever smaller and better informed groups, and re-asserting the final status and dignity of the individual’s citizenship. [11]

As late as 1965 a young practitioner, Colin Trusler (until very recently Managing Director of the major international public relations consultancy Shandwick) exemplified Griersonian values in a prize-winning essay on the use of films in public relations[12]  when he wrote:

If we believe that public relations means education by communication, the influencing of public attitudes by the dissemination of information, then film offers an impressive medium for establishing a dramatic and articulate bridge between an organization and its public. [13]

Grierson believed that propaganda was the means to educate the populace about complex social realities and defined propaganda as “the art of public persuasion”,[14] a view shared by Fleetward Pritchard, an eminent public relations practitioner who ran one of the earliest agencies of the post-war era, who expressed the view in 1950 that “[o]rganised persuasion is necessary to the proper integration of all civilised communities”.[15]  Elsewhere Grierson defined public relations in terms of pragmatically building particular relationships — “good public relations, meaning good relations with the public, good relations with the responsible forces of society, good relations with the various forces of national leadership”.[16] Definitions of public relations were much debated by the post-war generation of practitioners but typical examples included “the business of creating and maintaining…good relations with the public”[17] ; “a two-way function…interpreting the understanding to the public…interpreting the public to the understanding….aimed at enhancing the prestige of the trade concerned”[18] ; and “…anything and everything that leads to better understanding between people”[19] .

Grierson argued that propaganda was a necessary technique for modern states and he regarded it as intrinisically neutral:

We have, of course, discovered some marvelous new propaganda weapons since the last war, and particularly radio and the film. The Nazis saw their propaganda possibilities at once and began to use them on a Napoleonic scale, both at home and abroad. But obviously, the instruments were not themselves responsible for the development which urged their use. The urge to propaganda is the important thing, and we are only now beginning to realize that this urge is somehow deeply associated with the nature of the modern state. Whether we like it or not, everywhere the new dramatic methods of appeal are being used on a colossal scale to crystallize men’s sentiments and so affect their will. [20]

By contrast, however, some public relations practitioners, particularly those in central or local government, seemed alert to the wider implications of communicative action and emphasised the importance of feedback from audiences as illustrated by the following quotations:

Publicity…should ensure that the public will be able to contribute informed but constructive criticism. [21]

We regard public relations as a bridge between local government and the community – a bridge across which traffic can pass in both directions…[i]n the one direction, the policy seeks to interpret the local government service to the citizen….to win his interest and personal co-operation. [22]

One-way traffic means totalitarianism or anarchy, the two-way flow of ideas is essential to democracy… [23]

While Grierson argued that “education is the key to the mobilisation of men’s minds to right ends or wrong ends, to order or chaos”,[24]  in the context of war he had very clear views about exactly how people’s minds should be mobilised, suggesting that a particular idealistic worldview should be promoted:

….the “agency” of correct political change is not my concern. It may come in any colour of the rainbow, and call itself The British Council or the Society of St. George for England, Canterbury Inc. so long as it is the midwife of correct political change….correct political change will be that alignment of political principles and loyalties which, given the circumstance of the world today will best serve the interests of peoples of all lands, and the English [sic] people in proportion and actively mobilise the native heart and mind to these ends. It will be that alignment which actively eliminates the evil forces, wherever they may be, which are against such interests and all decadent forces, wherever they may be, which are not competent to control the developing scene. That is something on which all healthy elements must agree… [25]

Indeed, Grierson anticipated and accepted the charge of totalitarianism arguing that morally:

…you can be totalitarian for evil and you can also be totalitarian for good. My position is that this is a time when we had better be totalitarian for good and totalitarian for the sake of humanity, if humanity is to be served. [26]

Similarly, within the early journals of the Institute of Public Relations there is much to suggest that the function of public relations was seen as to act as a conduit for the function of “right” ideas to prevail in society. The predominant ideal was that of “freedom”. On behalf of freedom and truth, propaganda was seen as justified in the context of the Cold War. One example was the contribution of the Chief Public Relations Officer of London Transport in 1951:

Evil propaganda must be met and beaten by Truth. She will always win…Give her wings! Let the air be hers and the press and the film and the posters…Let it be a question not so much of countering communist propaganda but of getting in first…Faith exemplified in our adherence to Christian principles and thought is essential to the preservation of western life as we know it…a formidable rampart against the insidious workings of evil propaganda. [27]

Perhaps reflecting his Scottish origins, Grierson attributed negative connotations of the term “propaganda” to Catholic origins in a largely Protestant society, claiming as late as 1969 that “[t]here is a deep, inlaid, subconscious, hidden away attitude to propaganda which is associated with the Protestant fear of the Roman Catholic congregatio de propaganda fidei which, although it was only a congregatio for the propagation of the faith, came to be associated in many minds with the Counter Reformation”.[28] He articulated this view in a variety of talks and articles[29]  though, curiously, he dropped the allusion to Protestantism in a talk he gave to the Institute of Public Relations 1950 (discussed further below) perhaps because on that occasion he chose to make an analogy between the Institute and the Congregatio : “[a]t…another time we had an Institute of Public Relations just such as this – but with a much larger blessing and possibly a better title. It called itself the Congregatio De Propaganda Fide and it had, so help us, the actual illusion of a faith to be propagated”.[30]  The example of the Congregatio recurs in some of the basic contemporary literature on propaganda[31]  and also in some public relations literature. [32]  The theme of public relations or propaganda as evangelism and practitioners as crusaders remained strong in public relations discourse as exemplified by Alan Hess, a prominent IPR member who declared in 1950 that: “[i]f we do not believe in the worthwhileness [sic] of the organisations whose gospel we set out to deliver, then not only shall we fail in our mission but we shall be unworthy of our craft”.[33] Likewise, Alan Campbell-Johnson, whose career spanned more than half a century from 1937 also emphasised the relationship between propaganda and faith in post-war public relations:

…corporate propaganda is corporate projection of an interest which is a perfectly legitimate thing…propaganda is a religious term…it’s propagation of the faith and things that are meat to be propagated should be propagated. [34]

Grierson’s social activism stimulated some companies to play a much larger, and apparently altruistic role in society. He saw that film could benefit both companies and the public and often referred to the exanple of the Gas, Light & Coke Company which, “…when we could not get the British Ministry of Health to support the movement for slum clearance and nutrition”[35]  stepped in with film sponsorship. Grierson’s argument to the company was entirely pragmatic and appealed to the company’s self-interest by showing how sponsorship could help deliver social legitimacy:

We said in short: We are not interested in how much money you make and we are not interested in any publicity film whatsoever. On the other hand you are in a very tough position in relation to your competitor electricity. Electricity is associated with the twentieth century whereas you have not yet rid yourselves of your dark and somewhat sordid association with the gaslit 19th century. We are prepared therefore to bring you with all speed into the twentieth century by the simple device of associating you with the most modern and progressive elements of the day…it did their commercial interest no harm….[but] this particular utility did realize the still greater value of proving its public utility to the public and of reaching a point where it could call itself public servant number one and get away with it… [36]

Other companies cited by Grierson which engaged in such activity were Shell, Anglo-Iranian [later British Petroleum], Imperial Airways and ICI. [37]  His argument that “business groups are more imaginative in the matter of technological progress than they are on the human relationships which results from the technological progress”[38]  can be seen to have similarities to the views of Jock Brebner (PRO for the Post Office, discussed below). Brebner’s articulation of the need for business to take care of its human relationships both within the organisation, and in the local community was expressed thus:

The great danger of specialisation in any human organisation is that it weakens and undermines the understanding, the interest, and the sympathy that should link the people affected with the sum total of the organisation. Those are the very things that public relations and publicity are designed to protect…. [39]

Brebner’s argument that people became alienated from large organisations, and Grierson’s argument that companies were inclined to ignore the human side despite commercial benefits, are early examples of the business philosophy of corporate social responsibility in Britain, commonly thought of as a business practice which was introduced from the USA to Britain in the early 1980s. [40] It is clear from Grierson’s analysis that the motivation behind such actions was not disinterested, but driven partially by fears of social breakdown and is perhaps the earliest British example of the now common dictum that “Good ethics is good business”:

Firms like Shell-Mex, British Commercial Gas, Imperial Chemical Industries were jealous enough of their private rights, but felt that these could be best secured by discharging some of their public responsibilities. And at a time when, under the pressures of unemployment at home and rival philosophies abroad, certain new implications of citizenship were being explored in all democratic countries, industry in Britain was glad enough to climb the bandwagon and attach to its name the prestige of government information. Good business enjoined the same policy as good civics. [41]

The Tallents connection

Grierson’s impact on the field of public relations would probably not have occurred if he had not met, in 1927, Sir Stephen Tallents, a career civil servant who was then Secretary of the Empire Marketing Boad (EMB). As Grierson himself acknowledged:

…the initiative lay with Tallents. Without him, we would have been driven exhausted…into the arms of Hollywood or into the practice of a less expensive art. Tallents marked out the habitation and the place for our new teaching of citizenship and gave it a chance to expand. In relating it to the art so variously called “cultural relations”, “public relations” and “propaganda”, he joined it to one of the actual driving forces of the time and guaranteed it patronage. [42]

Tallents had developed an enthusiasm for publicity and national propaganda from previous appointments which required him to manage public opinion[43]  and he subsequently published his ideas about the importance of professional public relations in 1933 in Public Administration. [44]  Tallents’ ideas were most clearly laid out in his pamphlet The Projection of England published in 1932 in which he laid out his concept of a “school for national projection”[45] , and these ideas later formed the basis of the British Council, a body formed in 1934 to promote British education, science, industry, the arts and music and the English language and its literature overseas. [46] Tallents employed a range of external consultants and specialists in addition to Grierson, such as Frank Pick (noted for his publicity ideas and poster campaign for London Underground), Walter Creighton (event-manager) and Rudyard Kipling (novelist and poet). The collaboration with Grierson resulted in a number of documentaries after the well-known first film Drifters (1929), such as Canadian Apples, Sheep Dipping, South African Fruit[47] , designed, in the oft-quoted phrase to “bring the Empire alive to the minds of its citizens”.[48]

Tallents was President of the Institute of Public Relations twice in its early years, in the first year of its existence from 1948-49 and then again from 1952-53. Tallents himself promoted the concept of the documentary film within the pages of Public Relations [49]  and effectively acted as a vector for Grierson’s views. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is Tallents rather than Grierson who is remembered in public relations mythology even though there is evidence of Grierson’s thinking. At the outset, Tallents was credited with more importance by Public Relations, the first issue of which stated that Grierson “and his whole school of documentary films…owes everything to Tallents’ hard-fought battle for films at the Empire Marketing Board, and his transfer of the Empire Marketing Board Unit to the protection of the Post Office”.[50]  Tallents was certainly remembered by the post-war generation as the key mythical figure as indicated by the following:

…the person most known…is Stephen Tallents who I believe did found the IPR….before the war there were in effect PR specialists like Shell and London Transport. [51]

Sir Stephen Tallents and the Citrus [sic] Board or something…he made the first conscious effort to promote Middle East or Israeli [sic] fruit in this country and used PR techniques to do it. [52]

Tallents was the sort of man who knew film people and produced good documentaries…significant in moving PR forward…the one called Airmail [sic]…that sort of thing in film, that sort of attitude, explaining what’s going on and taking it seriously. I think that was developed before public relations itself really started to blossom and we followed on from that. [53]

It is said that Sir Stephen Tallents was the first person to coin the phrase [public relations] at the [Empire] Marketing Board. [54] .

…a leading figure in the IPR was Sir Stephen Tallents…from the Empire Marketing Board, the GPO, Nightmail, all these great things were from his time. [55]

Nevertheless, Traverse-Healy (IPR President 1967-68) described by others as “a philosopher of the trade”[56]  and “a doyen of the industry and a guru”[57] recalled in the 1990s a more complex picture and thought that documentarists made an important contribution to the development of public relations:

Shell had two hundred public relations…in the 1960s and had bolted into them things like the Shell Film Unit…you know Grierson and the size of the British Transport Film Unit [sic] was an enormous thing, Edgar Anstey and all these people…very well-known film and the whole things began to build….they wanted to create inside companies what the Central Office of Information were doing! [58]

While both Tallents and Grierson shared a view of the importance of strategic communication for political ends, their writing had a different emphasis. Tallents, educated at Harrow and Balliol was a natural élitist and English patriot, whose civil service career fostered the public service ethic evident in his declaration that “[t]he English people must be seen for what it is – a great nation still anxious to serve the world and to secure the world’s peace”.[59] Grierson, who benefited from exposure to some of the most challenging American academics in the field of public opinion, was more interested in the broader concept of public relations and both its social and international roles. He was not limited by the technique he espoused but sought to establish the overall aims of communication both academically and in a variety of contexts. The evidence suggests that it was Grierson’s ideas, rather than Tallents’ that influenced public relations’ self-view and idealism more profoundly.

Grierson’s public relations contacts

Grierson’s knowledge of the practical publicity field, as opposed to theoretical concepts of public opinion, propaganda, education and democracy developed as he came into contact with a number of influential practitioners in public relations, advertising and design. Then even more than now, these fields were not discrete entities but overlapped and complemented each other. Grierson acknowledged several men as key influences in the field referring to, “…operators like Tallents, A.P. Ryan, Jack Beddington , Jock Brebner…” [60] All were involved in pre-World War II government publicity and were important in the development of public relations post-war. Beddington was Director of Publicity and Advertising at Shell 1927-46 and was Head of the Ministry of Information’s Film Division 1940-46. [61] Postwar he became Chairman of a major public relations consultancy, Voice & Vision, and contributed to the Institute of Public Relations journal. [62]

Brebner worked in public relations at the Post Office and was a member of the committee which set up the Ministry of Information in 1937 where he became Director of the News Division; subsequently he was Director of Press Communications SHAEF and responsible for public relations of the British Transport Commission. [63] He wrote the first British text book on public relations which was published in 1949[64] and remained the only British book until the publication nearly ten years later of the Institute of Public Relations’ own publication in 1958. [65] The influence of Grierson on Brebner was evident:

…we are on the threshold of a third stage of development of the films which will be even more exciting than the second. I refer, of course, to the film as an instrument of education. When the film sets out to explain and to instruct, new and enormous potentialities begin to appear…already our experience of the educational film is sufficient to show unmistakably the shape of things to come. Perhaps even more significant than our experience of educational films proper is the acknowledged educational influence exercised by films produced for purposes of entertainment. [66]

Ryan was a former journalist who joined the EMB and then became publicity manager of the Gas, Light and Coke Company 1931-36, where he managed the famous “Mr Therm” campaign before he was appointed Assistant Controller of Public Relations at the BBC, where he became Controller of news services during the war. [67] He also assisted in the planning of the Ministry of Information. [68]

Another public relations officer at Gas, Light and Coke was S.C. “Clem” Leslie who was one of a favoured few from the private sector brought in to advise the Inter-Departmental Co-ordinating Committee on Government Publicity in the late 1930s and he ultimately moved into the civil service (generally private operators in the field of advertising and publicity had a poor reputation in government circles). [69] Leslie was relatively unusual in the field of publicity in that he was one of the few to commit his ideas to paper, and he sent his ideas on public opinion formation[70] and domestic morale[71] to Grierson in the 1930s. In the first of these papers he clearly took up the educative notions of Grierson, the inspirational ideals of Tallents and, apparently, the terminology of Goebbels (Volksaufklarung und Propaganda), in his proposal for a ministry responsible for democratic propaganda:

I have in mind to advocate a Ministry of Public Enlightenment. It should not be concerned with the inculcation of particular ideas or particular habits; those things can be left to the existing Departments of State, which are rapidly beginning to regard it as part of their administrative task to teach the public appropriate and useful things. Its first function would be to use modern techniques of communication to help to articulate and bring alive the idea of democracy in the public mind, to make familiar the nature and meaning of democratic procedure: to ask people to vote: to lead them to read their newspapers carefully, and listen to the wireless: to explain their own institutions to them, national and local, statutory and voluntary: representative, judicial, and executive: to help them understand their own history and to help any bodies which may exist with such aims. It would, in peacetime, attempt no direct influence, open or concealed, upon the ordinary news channels. But unless I am much mistaken it would, by the more public effort after democratic education, exert a powerful responsibility in the conduct of the press and the film industry. [72]

The Gas-Light and Coke Company was one of the founding organisations of the Institute of Public Relations and its then representative, Leslie Hardern, played an important role in the professional body. Likewise, the author and military historian Correlli Barnett, who worked for the organisation after it had been transformed into the North Thames Gas Board, worked under Hardern and became a member of the Institute in 1956. [73] A later Head of Public Relations at North Thames Gas was Derek Dutton, whose other posts included Chief Press and Information Officer for the Rank Organisation and Head of PR at the Electricity Council: his views reflected Grierson’s view of public relations practice in the late 1950s as including, “films and slides….educational materials which explained what a company was and what it was setting out to achieve in the community”.[74]

In 1937 Grierson was at the GPO where he inadvertently made another contact with another respresentative of the post-war public relations industry. At this time Grierson was suspected of being under Communist influence and Arthur Cain, an officer in the Special Branch was assigned to keep him under surveillance. [75] According to Forsyth Hardy, Cain eventually helped carry out some research for the Unit and married Grierson’s secretary, Phyllis Long. [76] Cain moved into public relations post-war, to the agency Voice and Vision, and edited the Institute of Public Relations journal, Public Relations, from 1956 to 1960. He was heavily involved in public relations education as part of the effort to professionalise the field.

An analysis of Cain’s editorials and the content of issues under his guidance barely hinted at his previous contact with the Documentary Film Movement. In comparison with previous editors, Cain’s editorials were matter-of-fact and descriptive, avoiding the self-consciousness and idealism of the years 1948-1956. During his editorship there was a brief announcement that Paul Rotha had been invited to speak to the Institute on “TV and Films for Public Relations” on Tuesday 16 November 1955[77] ; an anonymous article reviewing the Shell Film Unit’s film The Rival World which had been awarded first prize in the Technical Section at the Venice Film Festival and joint first prize at the Dutch Film Festival at Arnhem[78] ; an article on the British Council (which can be to some degree regarded as in the direct line of inheritance of the EMB) and a brief review of the Harrogate Film Festival awards for films for industry[79] . Knowledge of Cain’s links with Grierson does not seem to have had wide circulation in the public relations world. One contemporary described him as “a former policeman, good honest to God…not an intellectual but quite astute”[80] , and another said “Arthur was a policeman. I think he may have risen above sergeant….rather a caricature…very dogmatic in his approach…a kind-hearted man and a very nice chap and I would not say he [was] really touched with any genius in public relations but [he’d] been in the public relations business a long time”.[81]

Another early, but rather more random contact appears to have been the self-styled “Publicity Adviser and Press Agent”, Christopher Mann, who, on 15 July 1930 wrote to Grierson at the EMB to follow up an earlier meeting to proffer his services, explaining that he acted on behalf of his clients to suggest subjects for filming to the editors of news and magazine films who expressed “a continual demand” for material to “keep their productions lively topical and interesting”. Mann argued that if appointed as agent he would focus on subjects not otherwise covered by the EMB but he suggested that the value of his contribution would be in the subtlety of the approach taken:

The propaganda would be indirect; its acceptance would depend entirely on its interest value…The work would be undertaken by my organisation for a retaining fee. This would necessarily be quite small to start with, and could be varied by arrangement when the results had been reviewed. In relation to the value and great range of the propaganda the cost would therefore be insignificant. [82]

Documentary film as a public relations technique

In 1933 the EMB Film Unit became the GPO Film Unit making a number of films of which the most well-known is probably Night Mail (1936), about the overnight mail train service from London to Scotland: this was intended partly as an exercise in internal communications as well as external publicity. In terms of public relations technique it was therefore a truly innovative creation, quite apart from its aesthetic and promotional value, and regarded by Grierson as empirical proof of the value of public relations to both organisations and countries:

…Behind it all was the question of the morale of the Post Office as a whole. The first terms of reference of the GPO Film Unit were, then, to provide for the staff an understanding of their individual relations to the overall ramifications of GPO activities…in an exciting and imaginative manner…the original documetary thesis – that people needed a sense and understanding of their participation in the total activities of the state – was proved to be true in a different context from that of the EMB… [83]

Such was the success of Night Mail, that documentary continued to be used as an internal comunications tool by companies in the 1950s and 1960s as Ian Macphail recalled:

I…pioneered the use of film [at the company Dexion]…one film we made because there was a big internal public relations problem when three units were to be moved to Hemel Hempstead, one of these satellite towns…the film was called “Hemel Homestead”…no gimmicks, just the facilities, schools, markets, medical facilities and so on. [84]

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Public Relations carried advertising from the Shell Film Unit and the Realist Film Company as well as a number of articles on the use of documentary film in public relations. [85]  These emphasised film’s educational role, for example, “[t]he documentary uses its money to do a job of public relations, education or instruction”[86] , and:

…if a firm or organisation wishes to establish good and lasting relations with the public, one of the best ways to achieve this is by providing young people with objective information of a purely educational nature. [87]

One article focused on the documentary activities of the steel company Samuel Fox and Company, which had commissioned a range of documentary films such as Steel Town and Steel Rhythm, both for training purposes and also for briefing shareholders and other publics. The article referred to the educational purpose as well as suggesting that gritty reality was portrayed:

Steel Town strikes a rather different note [to the instructional documentaries]..Here, the object was to try and convey an impression of the closer relationship existing betweeen a local steelworks and a local town…[the film showed] the great variety of pursuits followed by the same people when they leave the furnaces and rolling mills at the day’s end. [88]

However the key target audiences seemed external to the company, rather than internal, and intended to win over understanding at a time when the steel industry was in some trouble.

Grierson as public relations practitioner

After his wartime appointment at the Canadian National Film Board Grierson became UNESCO’s first Director of Mass Communications and Public Information. [89] Though he left after only one year, apparently frustrated with bureaucracy, [90]  the post gave him the opportunity to realise his most ambitious ideals for film, “the mass medium most capable of bringing the disparate elements of the wide world into obvious juxtaposition and association”.[91]  Such idealism was reflected in public relations discourse which suggested that public relations was the solution to the world’s problems including political crises and environmental disasters, being described as “something without which modern society would be immeasurably impoverished”[92] , “a policy for civilisation”[93] , and “independent from religious and ethical ovements, public relations follows its own path which also leads to better humanity”.[94]

UNESCO also offered Grierson a chance to engage in some practical public relations, one example being the proposal for a World Press Conference in 1947 intended to unify “by friendly negotiation…the rules and practices of the journalistic profession in various countries”[95]  and to formulate a “code of honour guiding their professional practices”.[96]

Grierson criticised the perception that public information entailed acting as:

an advocate with a brief for the defence; showing up only the good points, suppressing the weak and, in fact, giving a prejudiced and false picture of the work in hand. It is not a lobbying service or a service of public deception…an unworthy organisation may have a smart and tricky public information service, but it cannot have a good one. [97]

For the same reason he deplored the UNESCO practice of employing former journalists in the division which he thought inevitably led to a biased approach and an over-emphasis on the print media whereas:

…we need at Unesco an almost new type of information man with powers of academic and organisational reference as well as skill in one or other of the various forms of public presentation. Such men are obviously rare… [98]

These views resonated within the Institute of Public Relations where many held the view that “the good public relations officer is one who is concerned with putting over facts which can be supported by truth”.[99]  Whatever opposition Grierson might have articulated against an advocacy model of public relations, he still seemed to define public relations as rhetorical and promotional as well as informational:

[Public relations is ] a service which lubricates the path of public information activities. It concerns itself primarily with the operation of good personal relations to encourage agencies to give Unesco maximum favourable public attention…to ensure that Unesco receives as much publicity as possible. [100]

Within the public relations fraternity the view that public relations was linked to interpersonal relations on a grand scale was evident, for example the views that “public relations embraces anything and everything that leads to better understanding between people”[101] , and “public relations are human relations”[102] , These views became more strongly articulated with the establishment of the International Public Relations Association in 1955. From the outset this was an organisation with very high ideals and aspirations. The “Hermans Memorandum”, upon which was based the initial constitution of IPRA, described the role of the public relations officer in religious and almost Nietzschean as well as Griersonian terms, as “preaching the gospel of social behaviour….the voice of the social conscience…a kind of superman… “[103]  IPRA was recognised by the United Nations in 1964 but its aspirations were not purely temporal: these took on a spiritual dimension in 1965 when its members presented a copy of the Code of Athens to Pope Paul VI. [104] There was a continuing connection as IPRA’s President in 1988 was Alain Modoux who in 1998 was Director of Communications UNESCO.

Grierson’s talk to the Institute of Public Relations

Grierson’s talk to the IPR in 1950 was clearly intended to be inspirational and is perhaps a good example of his desire to seek new converts to the cause. As Harry Watts remarked, “he was an evangelist for the documentary idea”.[105]  Throughout the speech he identified himself with public relations practitioners using the first person plural throughout. At the outset he identified public relations practitioners as being the inheritors of a tradition that included the Roman Emperors and Machiavelli, “the princes and potentates of church and state…the Medici…hiring characters like Leonardo [and] Michael Angelo…[sic]” [106] . He appealed to his audience not to forget this tradition and suggested that in the post-war world, public relations had lost its way:

I think we may have come to a point where we are not as deeply rooted in our conception of public relations as we might be…not as conscious as we might be of the larger possibilities which are inherent in the communications we make to the public…I can think of no time which was less ambitious and less penetrating in its plan for public relations. [107]

Grierson went on to contrast the post-war developments unfavourably with the pre-war American practitioner, Ivy Lee and “the astonishing and commanding conceptions of Trotsky and Goebbels”[108] as well as that of Tallents. He challenged the notion of public relations as a technical discipline, suggested that there was a problem with the quality of those recruited to the field and challenged the Institute to improve the standing of the occupation:

…many of the forces of public relations today are amateur and have come into our profession without study of its nature… [109] …this Institute…[can] do much to bring public relations back to a level of consideration which some of its greater exponents from Machiavelli on have thought proper to give it. The techniques of public relations are important to study but in the last instance we are more than mere craftsmen. We are together living creative participants in the modern scene…this Institute has a special role to perform….we [are] short on a philosophy of public relations. [110]

Grierson’s talk was very favourably reviewed by “Critic” in the influential advertising newspaper, World’s Press News, who suggested that too much emphasis had perhaps been given to rational aspects of the work, such as market research, and insufficient emphasis to “exhortation”:

Can it be as Grierson suggests that exhortation is too daring, that it involves a faith in ourselves and confidence in the future we do not have, or that the inspiration is not there at the authoritative level? Whatever it is, we are missing, he declared, on the deeper aspects of public communication, clerkishly skimming the rational surface of public relations and hardly working with revelation at all. [111]

The speech appeared to have had some immediate impact on the then President Alan Hess, who, in the following issue, was reported as having said at the IPR’s conference:

…a personal sensitivity on the part of a PRO is infinitely more important than even the most methodical application of generally accepted techniques. There is no intellectual substitute for the human approach. Today, there is a tendency for too much intellectualism, too much market research reaction mumbo-jumbo to replace honest-to-goodness exhortation. [112]

Others responded to Grierson’s plea, and in so doing confirmed the idealism and aspirations for status held by many of those active in public relations professional associations. Important examples were Roger Wimbush (Vice-Chairman of the IPR in 1948), who declared that “the public relations man or woman must have an understanding of the humanities – and that must not be smothered by technicalities”[113] , and Norman Rogers (Honorary Secretary 1951-54) who urged, “[i]f we are not concerned that we are benefiting humanity we are wasting our time”[114] .

The emergence of public relations in Britain

It would be wrong to imply that Grierson single-handedly introduced the concept of public relations to Britain or that public relations in Britain grew solely out of the Documentary Film Movement, for neither were the case. There were a number of key political and social influences which facilitated the growth of public relations in Britain throughout the twentieth century. [115] Public relations was an institutional response to the growth of democracy and an improved understanding of the role and formation of public opinion in policy development and administration. Of major importance were developments in local and central government, where officials were beginning to professionalise and to develop a public service ethos in relation to their communities. The formation of the Institute of Public Administration in 1922, and its journal, Public Administration, a year later provided a forum for discussion about the relationship between officials and the public. A remarkably sophisticated understanding of public relations is apparent in debates in various articles. Public relations was defined as relations with the general public, but linked to processes of internal and external intelligence and policy development, and seen as essential to administration and to the improvement of democracy because:

a more vivid realisation of the state of public opinion on administrative matters…will show how [public administration] can be better adjusted to the environment in which it must work…Publicity should ensure that the public will be able to contribute informed but constructive criticism. [116]

That these ideas were not unique to the public sector is shown by the writing of the British-based advertiser, Charles Higham, an enthusiast for community education and government propaganda, whose ideas, first published in 1920, seemed to anticipate many of Grierson’s:

Mass education is badly needed. The wide dissemination of ideas can no longer be left to chance. Uninformed democracies are the greatest danger facing modern States [117] …Why not use publicity – …To win general goodwill for deserving public services? To inculcate a high standard of civic sense? [118]

Such ideas were illustrative of the growing interest in public opinion management and the role of communications in society.

Two world wars and developments in communications technology contributed greatly to the concept and practice of propaganda. Total war required competent public opinion management. The post-war Labour administration stimulated the growth of local and central government public relations because, as Alan Eden-Green, a future president of the Institute of Public Relations (1960-61) explained, “[a]fter the war there was a whole lot of new legislation which had to be put into plain language and interpreted to enquirers”[119] . Of the same period Grierson commented that, “[i]n the case of governments, there has been a growing realization that the complexities of modern administration involve necessarily a new understanding by the people”[120] . The concept of understanding was fundamental to the Institute of Public Relations (IPR), established in 1948, which defined public relations as the “effort to establish and maintain, by conveying information…mutual understanding and good relations between a firm, undertaking, statutory authority, government department, profession or other body or group, and the community at large”[121] .


Grierson’s particular contribution was to consider, in his extensive talks and writings, the problems of communication in an increasingly complex and technologised world. For him, as for others, public relations was a solution to the threat of alienation and possible breakdown of society. While he was an expert in one particular technology, that did not limit his thinking. Though Grierson’s contact with the post-war public relations developments in Britain was quite limited, it seems that he was a key source of much of the messianic zeal and idealism of the early practitioners. Documentarists and public relations practitioners shared (and continue to share) the same tension between explanation, interpretation, information and persuasion; and face the same challenges of transparency and authenticity. Increasingly, in the post-war era, public relations practitioners faced the additional challenge of legitimacy and thus they often articulated and reiterated their social purpose. It has often been said of the documentary movement that by the end of World War II it had entered its decline, but some of its fundamental ideals appear to have survived in the context of the professionalising occupation of public relations. Though this was not Grierson’s achievement alone, the evidence suggests that some reappraisal as to whether that decline was really as terminal as suggested, may be appropriate.


I should like to thank the management committee of the John Grierson Archive, University of Stirling for granting me access and in particular Carolyn Rowlinson, librarian, who gave invaluable guidance and to Helen Beardsley, librarian, who was my patient “baby-sitter” in the Archive. Likewise I am grateful for the help and support received from the Director of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT), Michael Cudlipp and the Archive Manager there, Margaret Garrod. Thanks are also due to John Lavelle, former Executive Director of the Institute of Public Relations (IPR), who facilitated access to the IPR archive. I am also indebted to the sixty public relations practitioners whom I interviewed as part of this research and who generously shared their memories and insights. Finally, I should like to thank my colleague Suzy Angus who some years ago lent me her books on Grierson and Rotha and has not seen them since – I promise to return them.


[1] N. Pronay, “John Grierson and the documentary – 60 years on”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 9, no.3 (1989): 231.
[2] Pronay, 231.
[3] I. Aitken, Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (London: Routledge 1993), 54.
[4] S. Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin (New York: Harper Collins Basic Books, 1996): 131-145.
[5] John Grierson, “The Course of Realism”, in Forsyth Hardy (ed), Grierson on Documentary (London: Faber & Faber ,1979): 78.
[6] John Grierson Archive, University of Stirling, G5:16:1, p.1.
[7] Grierson Archive, G4:19:21, p.3.
[8] Grierson Archive, G4:19:21, p.3.
[9] John Grierson, PRO BT 64/86 6880, p.2 cited in Aitkin, 98.
[1] John Grierson, “Education and the New Order”, Winnipeg 1941, Grierson Archive, G4:19:1, p.1.
[11] Alan Campbell-Johnson, “A Consultant’s Point of View”, Public Relations 8, no.2 (1956): 53.
[12] “Prizewinner”, Public Relations 17, no.4 (1965): 40-47 (July 1965 – note that both this issue and the following issue October 1965 were printed with identical volume numbering).
[13] “Prizewinner”, 40
[14] John Grierson, “Propaganda: a problem for educational theory and for cinema”, Sight and Sound, Winter 1933-34, p.119, Grierson Archive, G3A:5:1.
[15] Fleetward Pritchard, “Persuasion”, Conference presentation, Public Relations 2, no.4 (1950): 20.
[16] John Grierson, “The film industry’s public relations in war and peace” , Variety , 38th Anniversary number, Wednesday 5 January 1944, Grierson Archive, G4:34:26.
[17] Editorial, “Public relations in industry”, Public Relations 1, no.1 (1948): 1.
[18] F. Murray Milne, “What they said”, Public Relations 2, no.4 (1950): 8.
[19] Editorial, “The need for mutual understanding”, Public Relations 7, no.3 (1955): 16.
[20] John Grierson, “Propaganda and education”, 15 November 1943, p.2, Grierson Archive, G4:19:5.
[21] F.H. Wood, “Intelligence and public relations”, Public Administration 14 (1936): 43.
[22] “NALGO’s PR policy”, Public Relations 2, no.3 (1950): 15.
[23] B. D. Copland, “What people think”, Public Relations 2, no.3 (1950): 18.
[24] Grierson, “Education and the New Order”, 1.
[25] John Grierson, “The documentary idea”, Grierson Archive, G4: 20: 11 p. 8.
[26] Grierson, “Education and the New Order”: 1.
[27] G. Dodson-Well, “Bulwark of freedom”, Public Relations 4, no.1 (1951): 6-7.
[28] Interview between John Grierson and Roger Blair for the Canadian TV and Radio Commission 1969, Grierson Archive, G7A:5:5.
[29] John Grierson, “Propaganda and education”; “Education and political reality”, talk to the Ontario School Inspectors’ Association, reprinted in their 1945 Annual Report, Grierson Archive, G4:19:14.
[30] John Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, Public Relations 3, no.1 (1950): 13.
[31] Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (London: Sage, 1986), 48; Robert Jackall (ed), Propaganda, (London: Macmillan, 1995), 1.
[32] Tim Traverse-Healy, Public Relations and Propaganda – Values Compared (International Public Relations Asssociation, 1988), 5; Shirley Harrison, Public Relations: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1995), 7.
[33] A. Hess, “Conference speeches”, Public Relations 3, no.2 (1950): 6.
[34] Interview, Alan Campbell-Johnson, 22 August 1995.
[35] “The future of the films”, 23 June 1945, Grierson Archive, G4:20:27, p.6
[36] “The future of the films”, p.6.
[37] “The future of the films”, p.7.
[38] “The future of the films”, p.7.
[39] J. H. Brebner, Public relations and publicity (Institute of Public Administration, 1949), 10.
[40] Corporate social responsibility should be distinguished from corporate philanthropy in that it recognises the obligation of private enterprise to society apart from taxation. Corporate philanthropy is a charitable supererogatory act not arising from a recognition of duty. See J. L’Etang “Corporate social responsibility and public relations: issues arising”, Journal of Business Ethics 13, no.2 (1994): 111-123.
[41] John Grierson, “Voice of the state – interchanging public information between government and people from Pericles to Elmer Davies”, Grierson Archive, G5:8:10 p.38.
[42] John Grierson, “The story of the documentary film”, reprinted from Fortnightly Review, London, Grierson Archive, G3:14:5, p.5.
[43] Administering food rationing in World War I, as British Commissioner for the Baltic Provinces, as Imperial Secretary for Irish Affairs and Secretary to the Cabinet Committee set up to deal with the General Strike. Source: Paul Swann, The British Documentary Movement 1926-46 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 23.
[44] Sir Stephen Tallents, “Salesmanship in the public service: scope and technique”, Public Administration11 (1933): 265.
[45] Sir Stephen Tallents, The Projection of England (London: Olen Press, 1932, 1955), 11.
[46] A.J.S. White, The British Council: The First 25 Years 1934-59 (London: The British Council, 1965), 7.
[47] Swann , 37.
[48] Sir Stephen Tallents, “The Birth of British documentary”, Part II, Journal of the University Film Association 20, no.2 (1963): 17.
[49] “Members seek definition of public relations”, Public Relations 1, no.3 (1949): 4; Sir Stephen Tallents “Who goes there?”, Public Relations 5, no.2 (1953): 3-6.
[50] “Profile of the President”, Public Relations 1, no.1 (1948): 7.
[51] Interview, G. Andrew, 23 July 1996.
[52] Interview, Tony Spalding, 13 March 1997.
[53] Interview, Bill Simpson, 14 February 1997.
[54] Interview, Peter Earl, 12 April 1997.
[55] Interview, Joyce Blow, 31 October 1996.
[56] Private correspondence, 6 February 1997.
[57] Roger Hayes, “Foreward”, in Traverse-Healy, 2.
[58] Interview, Tim Traverse Healy, 13 September 1995.
[59] Tallents, The Projection of England, 38.
[60] “A Review of Reviews”, 1956/57, Grierson Archive, G6:33:14 p.3.
[61] Mariel Grant, Propaganda and the Role of the State in Inter-war Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) footnote p.112.
[62] J.L. Beddington CBE, “Industry as a patron of the arts”, Public Relations 8, no.3 (1956): 9.
[63] “Public relations for British Transport”, Public Relations6, no.2 (1954): 35-36.
[64] Brebner.
[65]  A Guide to the Practice of Public Relations (The Institute of Public Relations/Newman Neame, 1958).
[66] Brebner, 26.
[67] Grant, footnote p.112.
[68] Grant, 112.
[69]  Grant, 232-234.
[70] S.C. Leslie, “The formation of public opinion”, 15 October 1938, Grierson Archive, G3:16:4.
[7] S. C. Leslie, “Home Front”, June 1939, Grierson Archive, G3:16:6.
[72] Leslie “The formation of public opinion”, 13-14.
[73] “New members”, Public Relations 8, no. 3 (1956): 31.
[74] Interview, Derek Dutton, 28 August 1996.
[75] Forsyth Hardy, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography (London: Faber & Faber 1979), 85-86.
[76] Hardy, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, 86.
[77] “Institute of Public Relations programme”, Public Relations 8, no.1 (1955): 6.
[78] “The rival world”, Public Relations 8, no.1 (1955): 26.
[79] “The film and industry”, Public Relations 10, no.2 (1958): 24.
[80] Interview, 19 August 1995, off-the-record comment.
[81] Interview, 20 August 1995, off-the-record comment.
[82] Grierson Archive, G2:22:9.
[83] Grierson Archive, G5: 16: 1, pp.4-5.
[84] Interview, Ian Macphail, 20 August 1995.
[85]  For example: J. Halas, “Specialised films and the USA”,  Public Relations 11, no.2 (1959): 21-23; C. Parris, “The influence of TV commericials in the sponsored film”, Public Relations 11, no.2 (1959): 40-43; “Launching an industrial documentary film”, Public Relations 11, no.4 (1959): 2-5; J. Le Harivel, “Sponsoring educational films: a challenge to industry”, Public Relations 12, no.3 (1960): 13-19.
[86] Parris, 40.
[87] Le Harivel, 13.
[88] “Launching an industrial documentary film”, 2.
[89] Hardy, Grierson on Documentary, 15.
[90] Hardy, Grierson on Documentary, 15.
[91] Grierson, “The challenge of peace”, in Hardy, Grierson on Documentary, 178.
[92] Hess, 5.
[93] Prince Y. Galitzine, “Philosophy of public relations”, Public Relations 12, no.4 (1960): 51.
[94] E. V. Vegrin, “Aristotle placed it first”, Public Relations 12, no.2 (1960): 2.
[95] UNESCO/C/Prog.Com./S.C.Mass.Com./4 Paris, 5 December 1946, Grierson Archive, G5: 4: 3, p.4
[96] UNESCO/C/Prog.Com./S.C.Mass.Com./4, 4.
[97] Grierson Archive, G5: 4: 5, p 2.
[98] Grierson Archive, G5: 4: 5, p 4.
[99] R.A. Paget-Cooke, “Eight men in search of an answer”, Public Relations 6, no.1 (1953): 20.
[100] Grierson Archive, G5: 4: 4.
[101] “The need for mutual understanding”, Public Relations 6, no.4 (1954): 1.
[102] “Response”, Public Relations 7, no.3 (1955): 16.
[103] Sam Black and Tony Murdoch (eds), A Commitment to Excellence: The First Forty Years, International Public Relations Association (Sweden: GormanGruppen, 1995), 24-25.
[104] Black & Murdoch, 38.
[105] Harry Watt, Don’t Look at the Camera (London, Elek 1974), 189, quoted in Aitken, 53.
[106]  Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, 13.
[107] Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, 13.
[108] Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, 13.
[109] Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, 17-18.
[110] Grierson, “The scope of the film in public relations”, 20.
[111] Critic, “John Grierson gave us something to think about”,  World’s Press News , 16 March 1950, Grierson Archive, G5A: 1: 3.
[112] Hess, 6.
[113] “The qualities of a PRO discussion”, Public Relations 2, no.4 (1950): 15.
[114] “The qualities of a PRO discussion”.
[115] For a full account see J. L’Etang, “State propaganda and bureaucratic Intelligence: the creation of public relations in 20th century Britain”, Public Relations Review 24, no.4 (1998): 413-441.
[116] S.H. Wood, “Intelligence and public relations”, Public Administration 14 (1936): 46.
[117] Sir Charles Higham, Looking Forward: Mass Education through Publicity (London, Nisbet & Co.1920), 14.
[118] Higham, 80-82.
[119] Interview, Alan Eden-Green, 16 August 1995.
[120] Grierson, “The challenge of peace”, 169.
[121] Norman Rogers, “Birth of the Institute”, Public Relations 10, no.2 (1958): 12.