What British PR's founding father can teach us today

Basil Clarke was a pioneer of British PR in the 1920s. Richard Evans looks at five of his principles for effective comms that still hold strong in today's market.

Basil Clarke
Basil Clarke

Basil Clarke was a war reporter who became the UK's first PR officer in 1917 and started PR firm Editorial Services in 1924. Despite him being the father of British PR, most people working in the industry today have never heard of him. Here are five things we can learn from him.

1. Claims in press releases should be sourced

Clarke insisted all press materials issued by Editorial Services had to include references for any claims so journalists could check them. He saw this as important in retaining credibility, particularly as the idea of PR was controversial in the 1920s. Referencing claims might seem obvious, but lots of press releases today do not do this.

2. PR firms should not canvass for business or accept payment by results

The question of how to make PR more professional is one of the big issues facing the industry today, just as it was in Clarke's time. He thought the reputation of PR depended on the actions of those working in it and he worried canvassing for business would mean people making promises they couldn't keep. He also considered payment by results beneath the dignity of the kind of profession he wanted PR to become.

3. Ethics are important

Clarke produced the world's first PR code of ethics and by the mid-1920s only accepted clients he believed would bring public benefit. He once rejected the chance to work for the spirits industry because he was already trying to convince the public that 'beer is best' and so was worried about the conflict of interest.

4. 'No single soul in this world is an enemy of the editor if he has fresh, live news to tell'

Just like today, in the 1920s stunts were a popular method for getting editorial coverage for clients. But Clarke rejected this approach, realising that the best way to secure coverage was simply to find the news value in a client's work and put it into a news format, and that he could make himself valuable to newspapers by producing newsworthy material regularly. It was a simple enough formula, but it worked: Editorial Services was the UK's leading PR agency throughout the 1920s.

5. Four factors determine news value

Clarke identified the four elements that can give a story news value as being its importance; human interest value; timeliness and the reliability of its source. He thought a story did not have to have all four factors, but that by strengthening one of the factors (for example, enhancing the human interest value by finding out more personal information about the people involved), you would also strengthen the news value of the story.

There was nothing particularly difficult about this, but he was dismissive about the ability of much of his competition, writing that 'news-value factors are woefully ignored in publicity departments across the country', with the result that '99 per cent of the propaganda copy on innumerable subjects sent to newspapers is doomed ab initio (from the beginning) to the waste paper basket'.

Richard Evans' biography of Basil Clarke, From the Frontline, is published on 14 June. It is available for pre-order at thehistorypress.co.uk.

Picture courtesy of Annie Bibbings

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