Analysis: Great British Communicators

PRWeek opens its online ballot today in a bid to find the greatest British communicator of the 20th century. Joe Lepper talks to leading PR industry figures about the reasons behind their sometimes controversial choices

Who was the greatest British communicator of the 20th century? That is

the question PRWeek is putting to its readers in a major online survey. PROs are being asked to vote online for the person they think most captured the imagination of the news media over the past hundred years.

The top communicator will be a British citizen (dead or alive), will have actively used the media to communicate to his or her audiences, and can be drawn from any walk of life – business, politics, the arts and sciences, sport or entertainment.

To fire your imagination, we sought the views of some the leading lights of

today’s PR industry on the qualities they believe make a great communicator, and their nominations.

While oratory skills, creating the right image and clarity of vision are part of a winning formula, for the truly great communicators, it seems, nothing cuts the mustard quite like having the rare power to wield influence over world leaders and millions of citizens.

This is clearly the rationale for Max Clifford’s three choices of Sir Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and Tony Blair. Clifford says: ‘The ultimate communicator is someone who wins friends and influences people. People who have had the most influence over the lives of everyday people.’ While

he concedes that neither Churchill, Diana nor Blair were perfect in their communications, they ‘found ways

of communicating with the masses effectively, in which the positives far outweigh the negatives’.

Margaret Thatcher, for some a contender for communicator of the century and a politician who like Blair redrew the political map, is however definitely ruled out by Clifford: ‘She lacked the common touch,’ he says.

Churchill also gets the vote of Weber Shandwick joint CEO Colin Byrne. The former PM’s influence was so great that, ‘despite the adversity and pending obscurity of his pre-war political life [he] rallied a nation in one of our darkest hours with leadership that used communications to the fullest.’

And as Byrne points out, Churchill also had the attributes of confidence and oration to help him communicate directly to the masses.

Influence is once again the key factor for Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell in his unusual choice – ‘the office of the editor of The Sun’.

All the late 20th century Murdoch era Sun editors from Larry Lamb to Rebekah Wade are included by Bell: ‘They have a genuine claim to have determined which party became the Government for the last quarter of the century. The Sun occupies a position of reflecting readers’ views, guiding them and marshalling support in a more effective way than other organisations.’

For others though, while influence is key, the effect they have had on the

media itself is a major factor in their choice. This emphasises the reason why our search is for those communicators of the last century, as it was the key era in the rise of the modern mass media, forcing new skills of communication upon those in business, politics, arts, science, sports and entertainment.

For Hill & Knowlton UK chairman David Maclaren, the choice has to

be Sir David Attenborough, the man who introduced colour TV to Britain, at one time headed BBC2 and is ‘the chancellor of the University of the Living Room’.

He is a man, MacLaren argues, ‘who explained who we are, where we have come from and how we relate to the rest of creation more lucidly and engagingly than any other’.

For similar reasons Reuters comms director and former royal PR chief

Simon Walker nominates Sir David Frost: ‘When I was a child he dominated TV in this country and for a period across the Atlantic. Now that I am (almost) 50, his Sunday programme remains the primary vehicle for politicians, international figures and sometimes much softer subjects.’ Walker adds that Frost’s ‘clarity of mind and articulation is in my view the hallmark of a successful communicator’.

Influence and effect on the media are joint factors for Freud Communications director Oliver Wheeler’s choice of the inventor of the clockwork radio, Trevor Bayliss. Wheeler says Bayliss revolutionised the flow of information in Africa in an attempt to halt the spread of HIV. He says Bayliss has the qualities of ‘having a powerful influence on a large audience and solving a complex communications challenge against extreme adversity’.

Unilever UK comms head Patrick Kerr suggests that John Lennon may even be the greatest British communicator of all time: ‘The key qualities of a great communicator must include establishing a credible vision, demonstrating clarity and consistency of message and expressing honesty and integrity through words and actions.’

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