Basil Clarke and a code of conduct for public relations

Richard Evans – From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke – The History Press (2013)
Richard Evans – From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke – The History Press (2013)

   

“Why then is the press agent to be condemned if he offers free of charge some copy or information ….. Does the fact of its being a press agent’s copy, and therefore publicity copy, automatically condemn it, destroy its news-value, vitiate its interests for the public? Of course not. For it is one of the truths the editor knows from his editorial cradle that virtually every single item in the paper is publicity for some person, cause or thing.”  Basil Clarke

Editorial Services

After a few brief years Clarke left government service and in 1924 put his journalistic skills and contacts to good use by setting up one of the first, and at the time most successful, public relations agencies in the UK: Editorial Services.

By the end of the decade he was running a considerable operation with 60 employees and clients including Lyons, Heinz and the National Union of Teachers. The firm later became CS Services and long after Clarke’s death it was sold in the 1960s to the global firm Burson-Marsteller (L’Etang, 2004).

"Clarke was one of a number of former intelligence officers and journalists who emerged from the conflicts of the Great War and the Partition of Ireland to join the ranks of the rising public relations profession."

It does seem apparent that the developing public relations profession was influenced to a significant degree by the period in which it began to flourish, both in the UK and the US. The need for public information, and arguably the use of propaganda, was highlighted by the war and most of the PR industry pioneers who emerged in the 1920s had either served in the armed services during the war or were involved in supporting those that did through some kind of government publicity service.

‘Propaganda by news’

During his years of government service Clarke was a proponent of what he called ‘propaganda by news’, controlling the news agenda by choosing which news stories were released and letting the chosen facts speak for themselves rather than trying to spin them in a positive or negative direction. This control is of course much easier if you have access to the wealth of stories available on a daily basis to the government.

Once he moved into private practice Clarke no longer had such a range of stories at his disposal and perhaps because of this he had to alter his methods. If Clarke’s government work was ‘propaganda by news’, his intention with Editorial Services is perhaps evident in the choice of name. This was to be ‘publicity by news’ (Bailey, 2013).

As we have seen, there are a number of similarities between Ivy Lee in the US and Basil Clarke in the UK. Both started out life as journalists and both later became embroiled in defending the indefensible, trying to explain away the massacre of civilians by armed representatives of the state. In Lee’s case this was the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ of striking miners’ families by the Colorado National Guard in 1914, and in Clarke’s case it was the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre of Gaelic football fans by the police at Croke Park Dublin in 1921.

But there is yet another striking similarity between the two, which is that both were responsible for early attempts to produce a set of guiding principles or code of ethics for public relations practitioners. In 1906 Ivy Lee wrote his Declaration of Principles stating:

“This is not a secret press bureau. All of our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. …. In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

Code of Practice

Sometime later, in 1930, Clarke set out his own ethical code of practice for public relations practitioners in the UK.

This code seems to have been strongly influenced by Clarke’s background as a journalist, but it also appears that he had spent some time reflecting on his own activities working for the government, perhaps even trying to set the record straight as to his own motivation whilst engaged in government ‘propaganda’.

He argued for professional fees for PR practitioners, rather than basing payment solely on the results they achieved. He also called upon practitioners to respect the independence of journalists and for an end to the anonymity behind which some PR agents preferred to practice (Evans, 2013).

Finally, Clarke stated the case for the inclusion of footnotes in press releases giving the sources for claims made.

This would be good journalistic practice, but it would also provide a defence for the hapless PR officer put upon by his corporate or government masters to spin the truth about the facts in question without being held accountable for them. Perhaps in making this call Clarke was casting his mind back with regret to that fateful day in November 1920 and the events at Croke Park, Dublin that had such a long-lasting impact upon his own reputation.

Bibliography

Jacquie L’Etang – Public relations in Britain: a history of professional practice in the twentieth century – Lawrence Erlbaum (2004)

Richard Bailey – Basil Clarke: past and present of PR  www.prstudies.com (15 July 2013)

Richard Evans – From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke – The History Press (2013)

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