Channelling the Vibe: BBC Internal Communication in the TV Era – Source of the Month (June 2024)

Last month’s blog post explored the behind-the-scenes strategy of internal communication at the BBC through its archive of minutes and memos. The story went from the inception of the BBC’s first magazine in 1928 up to its first reader questionnaire of 1959. This month’s blog post continues this story up to the present day. The archival records offer glimpses into the decision making up to 1989 when the collection stops. For the more recent history, we are grateful to the BBC’s former Head of Internal Communications & Engagement Matt Eastley for talking to us about his recollections.

Integration with Wider Organisational Operations, 1960-80:

The ongoing debate over the degree of editorial independence at Ariel reemerged in the 1960s. The editorial advisory board discussed the magazine’s‘apparent identification with the voice of management’. A lack of controversial content was seen as feeding into this perception. However, two years of debate about whether to allow the publication of controversial articles ended with a decision not to. There was concern that the BBC was undergoing an organisational review at the time and that such content would not align with its policies.

Internal communication strategy started to look beyond the magazine. An experiment began in 1964 with using technology for communication, with the introduction of a four-minute staff telephone bulletin. Accessed through the internal telephone system by dialling a specific code, this twice-weekly bulletin provided concise updates to staff members. An upshot of the experiment was a realisation that communication needed to be coordinated across multiple channels, and it was suggested that the staff newsletter could be integrated with the telephone bulletin. The service was still in operation in 1965 but receives no further mention thereafter. Technical concerns had been raised from the outset over the potential for overloading the switchboards, so perhaps it was discontinued for this or other reasons.

Front cover of the March 1966 issue of Ariel.

With the spread of television in the 1950s, the activities of the BBC diversified. This brought challenges about how to communicate with a workforce engaged in more varied activities. In 1970, there was discussion about the possibility of producing multiple magazines for different sections of staff with television named as one that might have been separated off. This strategy had already been established in British firms such as Unilever and the National Coal Board. However, arguments for unity shifted the decision towards maintaining a single staff magazine.

A strategic focus at this time was making internal communications more dynamic and responsive to staff needs. Following a couple of years of debate, the decision was taken to change Ariel to a newspaper format. This would enable more frequent publication, which it was hoped would allow for more topical content. Changes were also made in terms of content. In 1973, a decision was taken to give each issue of Ariel to focus on a specific theme, allowing for more in-depth articles.

The overlap between internal and external communication emerged as a point of debate across this period. This began in 1961, when the issue of misinformation about BBC policy resulting from conflicting press statements was discussed. It was decided to introduce articles based on internal memoranda to keep staff better informed of policy. By 1975, the editorial board had been contacted by individuals and bodies beyond the BBC who wished to received Ariel. This approach was approved and, to make this feasible, an annual subscription model was introduced and Ariel was officially registered as a newspaper.

The BBC was not isolated from the industrial tensions of the 1970s and this raised, once again, the issue of Ariel being seen as a management mouthpiece. In 1977, one member of the editorial advisory board raised the issue of staff letters on sensitive issues such as pay and industrial disputes. In his view, ‘credibility was very important for a staff newspaper but there was a responsibility to ensure that nothing was done to damage industrial relations’. Later that year, it was decided that the magazine needed to address such issues more transparently and to provide a balanced platform for staff to voice grievances. The editor was granted the freedom to independently gather and publish information on both sides of any dispute, using editorial judgement on sensitive issues like pay.

The ‘Management Line’, 1980-90:

Far from moving away from the magazine as the central channel, the strategic discussions at this time gave Ariel an even more prominence in internal communication. Despite the increased production costs that this would bring, Ariel began to be published weekly from 1980. The benefits of more up-to-date job advertisements and news were deemed to be worth the cost. Later, in 1987, a proposal was made to reduce the use of paper at the BBC by ceasing to post all appointments on notice boards and, instead, to publish a page of appointments in Ariel each week. By this time, the magazine was seen as a vehicle for coordinating other organisational processes. As part of an attempt to streamline internal recruitment processes, Ariel began to feature all internal job advertisements from 1981. The move sought to address complaints that staff had missed out on job opportunities due to lack of visibility.

Concurrently, efforts were made to more closely integrate Ariel staff with the wider organisation. In 1981, invitations began to be sent for Ariel representatives to attend regular morning meetings of the Publicity & Information Department. This brought internal and external communication closer together, seeking to align the content of the magazine more closely with corporate policies and priorities. Then, in 1982, Ariel was transferred to the Information Division, with the hope that this would enhance its visibility and integration within broader BBC operations. It was a decision that not all were happy with. Some in the editorial board meetings thought that ‘having closer links with senior management might lead to a situation where Ariel was being fed “management line” stories’.

This move did, indeed, reopen the issue of independence. A meeting in 1985 debated how to tackle the concern that Ariel was becoming too much of a management tool’. Some at the meeting wanted to introduce a section for staff members’ views, with an emphasis that it would be for individuals and not trade unions. No action was taken, however, since others expressed reservations about the chaos that could ensue from this degree of freedom. June’s Source of the Month, taken from the minutes of a board of management meeting. It captured the debate over what internal communication should be:

‘D.P.A. [Director of Public Affairs] said consideration was being given to “opening-up” a section of “Ariel” to carry the opinions of individual staff members – not the unions – on matters of BBC policy. In this way, the suspicion that “Ariel” was becoming too much of a management tool would be headed off. M.D.R. [Managing Director of Radio] said the idea was laudable in theory, but a keen editorial eye needed to be kept on contributions for the sake of the individuals themselves. D. Pers [Director of Personnel]. had serious reservations about the proposal, and said that he would be extremely worried if the “access” page became the equivalent of a wall in Peking during the Cultural Revolution. D.G. [Director-General] said a carefully controlled policy of editorial access might be in order.’

An approach was discussed in 1986 that would open space for dissenting views, but in a way that could be moderated by Ariel staff. It was suggested that an advisory board be established to guide the magazine’s direction and facilitate the inclusion of more diverse perspectives, including union views. Another idea was to introduce an ‘access column’ for members of staff and that union views would be articulated through interviews with Ariel journalists. The absence of any mention of these in future years, however, suggest that this approach was also considered too risky.

By 1988, the balance had tipped towards the case for a new approach. Described as a ‘bland and lightweight publication which lacked credibility among its readers’ in a meeting, Ariel was to undergo a change. The decision was taken that a new editorial policy would be drafted that would include more balanced reporting, including union views and different perspectives on corporate matters. The editor emphasised that Ariel would not become ‘a means of disseminating union propaganda but will frankly state and explain the Corporation’s stance on matters affecting staff’.

The Digitisation of Internal Communication, 1988 onwards

In 1988, digital technology first made its impact on the BBC’s internal communication. Initially, this did not mean a move away from print as a channel but, rather, a modernisation of the magazine’s production. Print was still a manual process, involving typesetting and paste-up stages. It was decided that Ariel should move to desktop publishing, which would involve word-processing with the software Quark Xpress on a pair of Apple Macs in which the BBC would invest, along with an Apple LaserWriter II NT printer. After the initial investment, this made publication a much cheaper process and allowed changes to be made much closer to print deadlines.

Despite complaints in the 1980s about Ariel being a management mouthpiece, the magazinegarnered a very different reputation over the next twenty years. In 1998 it won the ‘Best Internal Publication’ award from PR Week, described as ‘reflecting not only management decisions but also staff opinions and concerns and it does this through a lively, and often critical, letters page’. Of its 26,000 readers, 3,000 were external subscribers including MPs and members of BBC advisory committees. It became a joke among staff that when print media wanting to run a negative story on the BBC, the journalists only had to get hold of a copy of Ariel.

Greg Dyke’s tenure as Director General was a formative time for internal communication at the BBC. The Making it Happen programme initiated by Dyke in 2002 aimed to cultivate a more open and critical environment at the BBC, with scrutiny and discussion of management decisions was further encouraged in Ariel. The magazine was then instrumental in the crisis following Dyke’s resignation in 2004. With some staff members walking out in protest, Ariel served not only as a news source but also as a communal space for expressing and processing emotional responses and differing voices. The editorial freedom that allowed for this highlighted how much it had evolved from the magazine that had been criticised for being a corporate mouthpiece twenty years earlier.

The reputation for criticism of management that Ariel had gained may have played a role in its ultimate demise. By 2011, advances in digital technology provided the BBC with an opportune moment to cease the print edition of Ariel. The organisation announced the move to Ariel Online, accessible via the staff intranet, citing environmental concerns and alignment with broader organisational green initiatives as primary motivators.

However, this shift to digital could also be viewed as a strategic decision aimed at curbing the magazine’s direct influence and controlling its outspoken editorial stance, which had been particularly pronounced under the editorship of Andrew Harvey from 2001 to 2009. Harvey, a seasoned journalist from Fleet Street with a background as editor of the Saturday Review of The Times, had steered Ariel in a direction that often clashed with the BBC management. The shift to digitisation was accompanied by a shift towards production by an in-house internal communication team that was more closely supervised by management.

The cessation of its print edition marked a critical juncture. Ariel Online was not simply a digitised version of the same magazine. The differing nature of online communication meant there was also a transition from in-depth article towards shorter and more fragmented content. It also ceased to be a resource for external audiences, with the content becoming gated for BBC staff from 2015. Ariel Online continues to exist but is very different from the magazine after which it is named.

The story of internal communication at the BBC is a story that has taken us from the experiment with The Saveloy magazine in 1928 through to the digital age. Substantial change can be seen in the nature of the magazines themselves and the ultimate demise of Ariel Online. The minutes and memos, however, reveal much more, showing us the strategic decisions around engagement and unity that were going on behind-the-scenes. Society and technology have changed considerably, but valuable lessons for internal communicators today can still be learned from the BBC’s historic experience. The ongoing struggle between top-down directives and inclusive dialogue is one that persists. With new technology continuing to appear, strategy is more important than ever as internal communication finds its path in the twenty-first century.

Sources

Collection of BBC minutes and memos. BBC Written Archives Centre, BBC/CORP/PERS/R49 and BBC/CORP/R78.

PR Week Public Relations Awards 1998, p. 40.

The Guardian, BBC to Stop Printing Ariel Magazine after 75 Years, 20 October 2011.

MH Greg Dyke article Heller, Michael. ‘BBC and Hutton – The Internal Communication Role in a Crisis’, Ethical Communication, pp. 350-51.

Heller, Michael, & Michael Rowlinson (2020). The British House Magazine 1945 to 2015: The Creation of Family, Organisation and Markets. Business History, 62(6), 1002-26.

Interviews with Matt Eastley, Michael Ellender, and Robert Seatter.

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