The Story of Internal Communication from 1878 to the Present

In 2024, the Institute of Internal Communication reached its 75th anniversary. To mark this event, the project produced this narrative, telling the story of how internal communication got to where it is today. Taking us from the first known dedicated company magazine in 1878 through to the launch of AI software, this story aims to be the most comprehensive and definitive history to date.

Chapter 1: Nineteenth-Century Origins

The roots of internal communication can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Society at this time was undergoing dramatic change, with technological advancements and more complex organisational structures. Out of this emerged the first forms of internal communication in the form of company magazines.

In 1878, the Ibis Magazine of the Prudential Assurance Company became the first known company magazine in the UK and one of the first dedicated company magazines in the world. The concept of company publications had earlier experiments, such as the suggestions made in 1834 by Friedrich List (a German nationalist economist) to a group of German factory owners for newspapers for employees.

The Lowell Offering has sometimes been referred to as the first company magazine. Whilst it received much of its content in the form of ballads, poems, essays, and fiction from the female textile workers of the industrial town of Lowell in Massachusetts, it was not a company magazine as such, but was a literary journal which was established by the Reverend Abel Charles Thomas of the Second Universalist Church in Lowell. It was later co-opted by female workers from the various textile mills to create a collective voice and communicate their grievances. While Charles Dickens idealised it as being ‘written, edited, and published by female operatives’, one former employee described it as ‘controlled by corporation influences’ which raised questions over its independence.

The tension between employee involvement and corporate control has been a recurring theme in the history of internal communication. Magazines such as Ibis Magazine, along with Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight Monthly Journal (1895) and Progress magazine (1899), marked a significant shift in employee communication. The Port Sunlight Monthly Journal explicitly stated that it was ‘written for and by employees’. This approach set the magazines of the late nineteenth century apart from earlier forms of communication. With the spread of such magazines at this time, this era can be seen as the origins of internal communication.

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The front cover of the first issue of Lever Brothers’ Progress magazine from October 1899

The historical context of the later nineteenth century explains the need for increased emphasis on communication. There was a transition from temporary and short-term employment to long-term and stable employment based on internal labour markets that created a need for effective communication to enhance retention. Combined with other measures like company sports and social clubs, the magazines created a sense of being part of a community through employment. Another driving force for better communication was the 1844 Joint Stock Company Act. This mandated annual reports, emphasising the duty to communicate with shareholders.

Technology has always been crucial in shaping communication channels, although not necessarily a driving force in its own right. This was just as true in the nineteenth century as today. As the century progressed, technological advancements in printing in lithography and the development of Linotype typesetting machines facilitated the mass production of newspapers and magazines incorporating images.

At the same time late-nineteenth century Britain saw the development of tabloid mass journalism and popular magazines with publication such as Titbits (est. 1881) and the Daily Mail (est. 1896). This adopted a lighter form of journalism which appealed to mass audiences and had features on human interest stories, fiction, and sport as well as news. This was adopted in the pioneering company magazines that began to appear in this period.

Chapter 2: Communication in the First World War

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.

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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.

Chapter 3: The Second World War and its Aftermath

With the Second World War, internal communication underwent significant transformations. The war itself led to backward steps in relation to the communication channels that had developed in the interwar years. Most notably, shortages of paper meant that many publications became slimmed down.

Interestingly, internal communication does not appear to have been seen as a low priority. The cuts were very much about resources rather than communication dropping off the agenda. In fact, a BBC letter from the time reveals that from 1942 a special forces edition of Ariel magazine was produced for those fighting. Staff continued to engage with magazine and John Lewis’ The Gazette struggled to catch up following 1945 with a backlog of letters that had been sent during the hostilities.

Far from dropping down the agenda, the importance of communication became more prominent during the Second World War. The wartime Ministry of Information was put in charge of managing propaganda, as it was called at the time, and the ethics of these practices were debated in the years following the War.

In peacetime, there was a shift away from a centralised approach due to concerns about its compatibility with democratic values. These debates made this a formative time for public relations in the UK and, in 1948, the Institute of Public Relations was founded. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the emergence and growth of PR consultancies, bringing about conflicts and debates within the industry about professionalisation and defining entry criteria.

The increased status of communication was not just about PR but also internal communication. In 1949, the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) was formed, the predecessor of the Institute of Internal Communication. This was a major step towards professionalisation of communication practices. Like the House Organ Institute, it had a more specific focus on communication than earlier institutes. Unlike the House Organ Institute, though, it successfully lasted and grew in prominence.

The newly-formed BAIE played a vital role in shaping internal communication. It organised conventions, regional branches, and publications for its members. Just like, the Industrial Welfare Society and Institute of Industrial Welfare Workers in the interwar era, the BAIE played an important role in facilitating the sharing of best practice. The post-war years were a golden age for the company magazine, which continued to grow in numbers.

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Front cover of a 1953 brochure outlining the aims of the British Association of Industrial Editors

The period following the Second World War marked a dynamic phase in the history of internal communication. From the expansion of company magazines to the formation and growth of professional bodies like the BAIE, these years set the foundations for the increasingly strategic approach to organisational communication that would follow.

Chapter 4: Communication Developments in the Pre-Digital Age

After the war, internal communication underwent a series of significant transformations and it is in these decades that the term ‘internal communication’ develops. 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.

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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.

Chapter 5: The Digital Era and the Journey into the Future

The final chapter, which we are still watching unfold today, has seen digital technology revolutionise the way that we communicate. Although the origins of digital technology are much earlier, the 1990s is the decade in which it began to have a great impact on day-to-day communication. Practitioners had already come to seen communication in much broader terms due to the changes looked at in yesterday’s blog post. Technological advancement, however, offered the means to reshape the way organisations communicated internally. The advent of intranets, believed to have begun with Sun Microsystems’ Sunweb in 1994, laid the groundwork for a new era in organisational communication.

Ever since, there has been a constant arrival of new technologies that have changed the way in which organisations communicate. Although it had existed many years before, email became established in the later 1990s as the default way of corresponding with colleagues in other departments. In the 2010s, social media platforms designed specifically for work began to be released, most notably Yammer, Slack, and Facebook Workplace became integral parts of the communication landscape. The implications for communication from the late-2022 release of ChatGPT has quickly became a major topic of debate among practitioners.

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Article on apps from the IoIC’s Inside Out magazine (Jul 2014)

These digital technologies were not just new channels, but also changed the nature of communication. They provided increased opportunities for two-way communication, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and employee engagement. Yet employee surveys have always highlighted mixed feeling about new digital technologies. While being appreciated for their speed and ease, emails have also been criticised for minimising feedback and sometimes creating barriers to communication. Equally, many intranets have faced criticism for their lack of interactivity. Some studies of Internal Social Media have found no clear relationship between its use and the effectiveness of internal communication.

For many working in internal communication today, the focus is not about introducing these new technologies, but doing so in a way that supports effective communication. The Institute of Internal Communication plays a vital role in facilitating this discourse. Current debates highlight how technologies must also be supported by a wide range of other considerations like leadership and organisational culture.

Technology has not been the only feature of the last thirty years. Steps towards professionalisation have become a major feature, led by the Institute of Internal Communication, as the organisation became known from 2010. Steps had already been taken on this path in the form of awards, having had house journal awards as far back as the 1950s and the Communicator of the Year award since 1972.

Another important feature of a profession is a code of conduct. The BAIE began to debate this in the 1970s but, at the time, concerns were raised about how they might restrict freedom. By 1990, however, a consensus had been reached on the contents of a new Code of Conduct. Work on professional standards has continued, such as the competency framework introduced in Sue Dewhurst and Liam Fitzpatrick’s 2001 manual for practitioners.

Most recently, courses and qualifications have reinforced the drive towards professionalisation. A postgraduate diploma in internal communication was initiated in 2000, followed by a master’s degree in 2009.

The story of this week’s blog posts has spanned more than a century, yet there have been ongoing themes across these years. Institutions like the Institute of Internal Communication have been vital in shaping organisational communication through facilitating the exchange of good practice and setting professional standards. In the early years, institutes focused on welfare work. The transformation of welfare work into personnel management gave rise to institutes focused more specifically on communication.

Major steps have been taken towards the formal recognition of internal communication as a profession. The establishment of codes of conduct, competency frameworks, and educational programmes, notably the postgraduate diploma and master’s degree, has raised the bar for internal communication practitioners. These initiatives mark a journey towards a more structured and respected professional identity. With multiple institutes holding a stake in communication, an important next step will be how to set the universal standards recognised by all communication professionals.

Throughout its history, communication has always been a social activity and not merely a business function. As such, it has been particularly affected by changes in the world in which an organisation operates. There has always been a need to adapt communication methods to new channels, while maintaining the underlying principles of good communication. In recent years, this challenge has taken the form of rapid technological change. Alongside professionalising, the upcoming years will be about striking a balance between embracing technological advancements and maintaining a human-centric approach, just as welfare workers sought to do a century ago.

Sources for the History of Communication blog series

Hansen, Gro Elin, ‘Discovering the History of PR’, Profile (Nov-Dec 2004), pp. 16-17.

Heller, Michael (2008). Company Magazines 1880-1940: An Overview. Management & Organizational History, 3(3-4), 179-96.

Heller, Michael & Michael Rowlinson (2020). The British House Magazine 1945 to 2015: The Creation of Family, Organisation and Markets. Business History, 62(6), 1002-1026.

Jones, Kathie, ‘A History of Facts Recorded on the Creation of the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) and its Development (via the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB) to Become the Institute of Internal Communication’, unpublished work (2011).

Ruck, Kevin, & Heather Yaxley (2013). Tracking the Rise and Rise of Internal Communication from the 1980s. The Proceedings of the International History of Public Relations Conference.

Ruck, Kevin (2015). The Evolution of Practice and the Changing Role of the Practitioner. In: Heather Yaxley, Kevin Ruck, & Ann Pilkington (Eds.), Exploring Internal Communication: Towards Informed Employee Voice. Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 27-43.

 

‘100 Years of Leading HR into the Future’, (22 Oct 2015) [http://www.cipd.co.uk].

BAIE, BAIE: The First Twenty Five Years (1974), p. 30.

BAIE, This is the BAIE (1953).

BAIE Council Meeting Minutes (13 Jul 1978).

BAIE Council Meeting Minutes (11 Jan 1990).

Boots, Comrades in Khaki (Apr-May 1916).

‘Editorial’, Welfare Work and Personnel Administration (Jun 1929), p. 101.

IoIC, Inside Out (Jul 2014), p. 3.

Lever Brothers, Progress (Oct 1899).