Munitions Got Tallents: The Rise of Public Relations in the Second World War – Source of the Month (September 2023)

The interwar period marked a significant juncture in the fields of public relations and integrated marketing communications. One individual, the senior civil servant Sir Stephen Tallents, emerged as a driving force behind these transformations. Born in 1884, Tallents’ innovative strategies and expansive vision left an enduring impact on corporate branding, marketing, and communication practices.

This blog post marks the ninetieth anniversary of Stephen Tallents’ appointment as the first ever Public Relations Officer at the General Post Office. This year is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of our project partner the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was Tallents who became the institute’s first President. This blog post looks at Tallents’ impact on the field of public relations and why it was that it rose to prominence during the war.

Tallents’ Early Career

Stephen Tallents was born into a world on the brink of radical change. His formative years coincided with a time of great societal and technological shifts. During the First World War, he worked at the Ministry of Munitions in 1915 and then at the Ministry of Food from 1916 to 1918. It was here he first became accustomed with mass persuasion and propaganda techniques which later became known as public relations. At the Empire Marketing Board (1926-1933), a government quango designed to enhance trade and research within the British Empire and promote its image and relevance, Tallents began to form his vision for a new approach to communication. This was a form public relations designed not only to further commercial interests, but also to support citizenship and democracy through information and education, and to propagate Britain’s image abroad. He employed a range of media, including publications, education, posters, films, exhibitions, press communication and promotional weeks to align commercial objectives with broader societal contexts. It was at the Empire Marketing Board where he first began his professional relationship with the film maker John Grierson, the founder the documentary movement. This was to have a profound impact on the development of public relations in Britain and abroad. This experience formed the basis for the innovative strategies that Tallents advocated in his later career.

When Tallents assumed the role of Public Relations Officer at the publicly owned General Post Office (GPO) in 1933, he had a platform to further reshape communication practices. The GPO, the largest organisation in Britain at the time and an institution at the heart of communication in the UK and Empire, faced criticism for perceived stagnation in failing to promote the adoption of the telephone in Britain and to develop airmail abroad. It was within this backdrop that Stephen Tallents emerged as a catalyst for change.

Tallents’ innovative strategies led to a revolution in marketing and corporate communication at the GPO and in the UK. He established the first ever public relations department in Britain at the GPO. He ventured beyond conventional boundaries, bringing fresh perspectives and integrating modern marketing techniques. This transition was not limited to the GPO alone. Later in his career, Tallents also became the first Controller of Public Relations at the BBC and supported the establishment of the Institute of Public Relations, becoming its first President in 1948.

Integrated Marketing Communications

Central to Tallents’ contribution was his pioneering of integrated marketing communications. His distinction between selling advertising and prestige advertising within the GPO, differentiating between product and organisational marketing, laid the foundation for modern corporate branding. Tallents’ strategies went beyond superficial tactics: he employed market research, target audience identification, and strategic communication planning, setting a precedent for future marketing endeavours.

Tallents’ innovative strategies found their zenith in his approach to promoting the telephone. He recognised the power of synergy, integrating various marketing communication tools and channels such as advertising, public relations, personal selling, direct marketing and promotion to create a cohesive narrative. This approach not only addressed disjointed efforts, but also harnessed the potential of different communication forms. Tallents’ work in this regard was validated through discussions within committees such as the Telephone Publicity Committee and the Post Office Publicity Committee, where he emphasised the collaborative relationship between editorial publicity and advertising.

Tallents’ approach blurred the lines between commercial and public goals. He leveraged publicity not just to promote services, but also to educate the public about the GPO’s functions. Moreover, he sought to forge connections with diverse stakeholders, ranging from political figures to local communities. This endeavour fostered a cohesive national identity and established an iconic brand that took the role of the GPO beyond simply providing a service and made it a national institution.

Wartime Rise of Public Relations

With the outbreak of World War II, Tallents’ role expanded beyond the GPO. He found himself at the Ministry of Information, where he adapted strategies from his previous endeavours to maintain public morale and communication against the demoralising effects of the war. Public relations played a pivotal role in the war effort and, as a result, this period was crucial for laying the foundations of modern public relations.

Weapons being manufactured for the war. Taken from The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, Sep 1941, front cover. Magazine held by the library of the London School of Economics, HD2336.G7.

Despite the different connotations and meanings they now hold, the terms ‘public relations’, ‘propaganda’, ‘advertising’, and ‘publicity’ were used almost interchangeably at the time. This is stated in September’s Source of the Month: an article authored in the Nov-Dec 1942 issue of the Industrial Welfare Society’s magazine by J. F. Bramley, a Safety and Welfare Superintendent at the Austin Motor Company. Entitled ‘War-time Factory Propaganda’, it provides valuable insights into how public relations was regarded during these formative years, and the challenges faced by the factories that were supporting the war effort,

‘Of the many new responsibilities and problems which have showered on the factory welfare officer during the war, one of the most distracting has been that of factory propaganda… Even the experts, versed in public relations, were not adept in factory relations. The old hands at advertising had, in fact, to introvert their precepts and practices which previously had been entirely extrovert, if we may use these psychological terms in an impersonal context. But the preliminary groping can now be said to be over, and a factory propaganda technique is developing which can claim to be contributing its quota to the war effort.’

Taken from The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, Nov-Dec 1942, p. 171.

The war played a crucial role in the professionalisation of public relations. It was no longer seen as one of the duties of a welfare officer, but as a line of work in its own right. It is not coincidence that the Institute of Public Relations was founded in the years following the war. Given his role in bringing public relations to this point, Tallents was a logical appointment as the institute’s first President in 1948.

Conclusion

Stephen Tallents’ innovative strategies have had a long-lasting impact on public relations, integrating marketing communications and corporate branding. His tenure at the GPO and his subsequent involvement in wartime propaganda efforts contributed significantly to the evolution of these fields. Tallents’ ability to merge marketing, public relations, and communication has had a lasting impact, shaping contemporary practices. As we reach the ninetieth anniversary of his appointment, we can still see the underlying principles of his approach in today’s social media and visual communication.

Sources

The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, Nov-Dec 1942. Held at the Modern Record Centre (the University of Warwick), MSS.303/B19/1/24.

Anthony, Scott, ‘The Talented Mr Tallents’, Influence, Q1 2018, pp. 56-57.

Heller, Michael, ‘The Development of Integrated Marketing Communications at the British General Post Office, 1931-39’, Business History, 58, no. 7 (2016), pp. 1034-54.

Heller, Michael, ‘“Outposts of Britain” the General Post Office and the birth of a corporate iconic brand, 1930-39’, European Journal of Marketing 50, nos. 3-4 (2016), pp. 358-76.

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