Chapter 4 of the History of Internal Communication (1878 to 2024): Communication Developments in the Pre-Digital Age

Yesterday, we explored how the Second World War drew attention to the importance of communication. After the war, internal communication underwent a series of significant transformations.

One of these was an explosion in company magazines and readership.  From an estimated 350 magazines in Britain in 1938 company magazines expanded to 1,000 in 1950, 1,500 in 1961, and 3,000 in 1985. A survey from the British Association of Industrial Editors in 1965 estimated that readership of company magazines was 17 million, one and a half million more than the national daily press. A study by the European Industrial Editors’ Association of 10 European countries in 1979 showed that Britain with 2,000 company magazines, out of a European total of 6,150, had by far the largest number of house magazines and newspapers. The second highest was France with 950 and West Germany had 450.

The period from the 1960s to the 1980s witnessed a notable shift both in terms of the focus and the methods of communication. Having previously been centred on industrial welfare and portraying the company as a family, magazines gradually transitioned into more commercially-oriented publications, as organisations adapted to deregulation and increased competition.

It is also in these decades that the term ‘internal communication’ came into use. The earliest adoption of the phrase that we have found was actually as far back as 1953 in a BBC meeting agenda that talks of ‘a certain weakness in the effectiveness of internal communications within the Corporation’. Yet this, and a few other appearances in later years, seem to be a chance combination of words rather than an institutionalised phrase that was commonly recognised. It is only in the late 1960s that the phrase ‘internal communication’ begins to appear regularly in our sources, suggesting it was emerging as a concept understood by those in communication.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a liberalisation of society and the emergence of a more permissive and less deferential culture. It also brought increasingly strained industrial relations, beginning with the ‘shop steward’s movement’ of the 1960s and 1970s in response to discontent with trade union leaders being perceived to be collaborating with managers while inflation eroded wages. The shift from Fordist production lines to more flexible production methods in the 1980s also emphasised the need for effective communication within organisations.

The combination of these trends prompted a re-evaluation of internal communication practices. Briefing groups emerged as a prominent form of communication. These took their inspiration from briefings by military commanders, a form of communication with which many post-Second World War employees would have been familiar.

Across the 1970s and 1980s this gradually evolved into team meetings, with a greater emphasis on two-way dialogue. The new communication method reflected a more liberal approach to work and an increasing emphasis on employee relations. The Industrial Society (formerly the Industrial Welfare Society) played a crucial role in positioning itself as a thought leader in these changes, running training sessions for managers on the new forms of communication.

A thanksgiving service for the BAIE’s 25th anniversary, held at St Bride’s on Fleet Street on 4 April 1974. Image taken from BAIE – The First Twenty Five Years (1974).

A crucial finding during this period was the emergence of a new managerial discourse and practice of internal communications. The strategic management of communication between management and employees became essential, making use of a diverse range of communication tools and channels. Briefing groups, meetings, television, and emerging information and communication technologies (ICT), such as computers and teletext, were all used as channels alongside one another.

The BAIE led the way developing the use of company magazines, which remained strong alongside the new communication methods. They were no longer the sole form of internal communication, but were still one of many important tools in the communication toolkit. There was a noticeable shift in focus from mass communication to more targeted and strategic internal communication.

The 1980s marked a turning point as deregulation and heightened competition forced organisations to become more consumer-focused. Consequently, company magazines became tools of internal marketing, reflecting the changing priorities of businesses.

Organisations were recognising the need for professional development in the field of internal communication. The BAIE also played a pivotal role in this area. In the 1960s, the BAIE experienced growth and development, introducing training courses in industrial journalism and examinations for membership. In 1971, it launched a consultancy service and, in 1972, it introduced the Communicator of the Year award. The latter played an important role in disseminating best practice, and provided internal communication with recognition and professional status, through creating accolades that magazine editors could aspire to achieving.

In the late 1980s, discussion began on whether to rename the BAIE. The British Association of Corporate Communicators was a leading suggestion. This name was never adopted, with a change to the British Association of Communicators in Business in 1995 instead. The fact that this debate was taking place from the late 1980s, though, reflects an acknowledgement that internal communication had become about more than just magazines.

Much changed in these decades but communication was about to be revolutionised by the advent of digital technology. Tomorrow’s post will explore this and the consider where communication is going next.

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