Chapter 2 of the History of Internal Communication (1878 to 2024): Communication in the First World War

Yesterday’s post looked at the origins of the company magazine in the late nineteenth century. The First World War marked a significant turning point in the history of internal communication within organisations.

The war itself was a stimulus for some companies to begin a magazine, a notable example being Boots, which used its Comrades in Khaki publication to maintain contact with employees serving in the war. Other companies in the UK such as Shell-Mex (part of Shell Oil) and British American Tobacco brought out similar company magazines. This period saw the first steps towards professionalising internal communication, with the emergence of the first institutions that facilitated the sharing of best practice.

Front cover of Boots’ Comrades in Khaki magazine from Apr-May 1916

Up until the First World War, publications tended to be exclusive, targeting higher-ranking staff such as clerical workers and engineers. They were often managed by the staff themselves. Many of the examples we have seen from these years have a more amateur feel.

Following the war, there was a shift towards professionalism, with management taking the lead in founding magazines that employed professional editors and writers. Large-scale organisations, spurred by amalgamation and rationalisation in the interwar period, adopted company magazines as a tool to create a common corporate identity for all employees.

In the aftermath of the First World War, a growing attention towards employee welfare contributed to the growth of company magazines. The Industrial Welfare Society, an association founded in 1918 for managers with an interest in employee welfare, advocated house journals and company magazines as one element in broader industrial welfare programmes. The society ran a monthly journal that discussed health, safety, and improved relations between employers and employees.

Magazines served operational roles by facilitating communication, education, and entertainment for employees. Simultaneously, they played structural and process roles by contributing to the construction of corporate identity, corporate culture, and the exercise and negotiation of power within the organisation. They were often used as substitutions for trade unions within companies.

By the 1930s, virtually every large-scale organisation in the UK had a company journal, reflecting broader societal changes and an increasing emphasis on welfare and communication. The role of company magazines expanded beyond internal audiences to include external stakeholders: a bridging of the internal–external divide between corporations and their shareholders and customers which is being seen again today with the digital channels of the twenty-first century.

Being part of broader employee welfare programmes, magazines were often managed by welfare workers at this time. They played a crucial role in shaping the discourse around internal communication. These workers were often members of the Institute of Industrial Welfare Workers, an organisation founded in 1913 that has now evolved into the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD). Membership of the institute required attendance on a training programme, thereby playing a role in standardising and disseminating internal communication practices.

In the early days of its existence, this institute had chosen to name its activities after welfare work, a term that placed an emphasis on the care of the employees. In 1931, it was renamed the Institute of Labour Management. Labour management as a concept focused more on recruitment, industrial relations, and safety and fitted into the internal labour markets which were becoming more entrenched in British industry in this period.

By the late 1930s, personnel management was beginning to come into use, incorporating functions like employee selection, training, and industrial relations. Personnel management was boosted by World War Two, where it was encouraged by the Government to increase armaments and wartime production. Following the War, the Institute of Labour Management was renamed the Institute of Personnel Management in 1946.

This change shifted work from an emphasis on employees towards a focus on efficiency and results. As such, it created a vacuum in relation to communication and the human factor in industry.  In reaction to this, a new wave of institutes began to be formed in Britain. One of these was the House Organ Institute, established in 1937. A precursor to the Institute of Internal Communication, this organisation had a more specific focus on communication than the Industrial Welfare Society and began a phase of professionalisation in internal communication that would continue after the War.

Tomorrow, we turn our attention to the Second World War and how propaganda drew attention to the importance of communication.

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