Great British Communicators of the 20th Century

Mark Johnson counts down the top communicators nominated by PRWeek readers

Whether it be from the world of sports, arts, business or politics, the 20th century was the century for communicators. The phenomenal development of media revolutionised the way in which public figures communicated with the masses.

Poor communicators are often easily identifiable. During the Iraq war Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf earned iconic status for his misinformation campaign. Who will forget the broadcast of farcical declarations that 'Baghdad cannot be besieged' while US artillery shells were heard in the background?

But at the other end of the spectrum, there are people who know how to influence opinion with what they say and how they say it.

PRWeek set out to identify the greatest communicators this country has produced in the last century, by asking the people with the most qualified opinions on the subject to nominate them: professional communicators.

For the first time, in a major online survey, PRWeek asked readers to nominate the individual who most captured the imagination by using the media to communicate. Candidates were considered from all walks of life, as long as they are British citizens, dead or alive, and have actively used the media to communicate to audiences during the 20th century.

So what makes a great communicator? Our outright winner, Sir Winston Churchill, was a particular kind of communicator, proving the case that in times of adversity, great communicators can emerge. He rallied support through well-crafted speeches, and practically invented the soundbite.

Other kinds of communicators also appear. Diana, Princess of Wales (fourth) demonstrated the power of communication through body language in her Panorama interview, while John Lennon (seventh) mixed song with protest.

Yet, each of them shared an honesty and integrity in their message, believing whole-heartedly in what they were saying, and having a clear and consistent vision.

Nominations that didn't make the Top Ten included: George Orwell, Kate Adie, Ken Livingstone, as well as Irish musician and campaigner Sir Bob Geldof.

Interestingly, some readers missed the point of the survey, resulting in some off-the-wall nominations. Their suggestions for great 'British' communicators included Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and, alarmingly, Adolf Hitler.

1 Sir Winston Churchill

Regarded as the man who saved Britain from Hitler and Nazi Germany, PRWeek readers have nominated Sir Winston Churchill as the greatest British communicator of the 20th century. The statesman received more nominations than his nearest rivals by a significant margin.

The politician and wartime leader was lauded for his powerful oratory, influential books and, crucially, for his recognition of radio as the medium that, in the 1930s and 1940s, could bring the leader of the nation into the intimacy of British living rooms. He was perhaps the first British prime minister who truly understood how to use the media of his day to influence public opinion using soundbites.

In one nomination, a reader said Churchill's speeches during World War II were 'the first deliberate, consistent, sustained and effective use of news media to move and motivate the nation ... before him and that time, the news media was a secondary communication method'.

One reader nominated Churchill because 'he made each individual he spoke to, in the millions making up his audiences, feel he was communicating personally with them'.

Another said: 'He had an unrivalled and wholly natural gift for tapping into the mood of his diverse audiences and knew when to reassure, when to explain, when to cajole and when just to be a friendly figure.'

It is his period as wartime prime minister that most captures the popular imagination.

Following an erratic political career that began in 1900, when he was voted MP for Oldham, Churchill was asked to take office in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, before becoming prime minister for the period of May 1940-May 1945.

Undoubtedly, his wartime speeches have left an indelible trace on the imagination. Only three days after forming his first coalition cabinet on 13 May 1940, and preparing the country for the challenges ahead, the public received its first taste of Churchill's powerful rhetoric when he told the Commons: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'

Such flourishes became his trademark in radio speeches. The most remembered speech of the war followed on 18 June 1940, when French resistance to Hitler crumbled and the Battle of Britain began. In defiant tone, Churchill addressed the country, concluding: 'Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour".'

2 Tony Blair

Tony Blair, who has probably received as much media coverage for creating a culture of spin in politics as he has for his policies, came second only to Churchill in our poll.

As prime minister since a landslide New Labour victory in 1997, it

is perhaps the culture of spin at Downing Street that has shaped the public's perception of Blair the communicator.

One PRWeek reader hinted at Blair's exploitation of the communicator's tricks-of-the-trade: 'Like all good PROs, Blair mixes blatant opportunism with carefully planned messaging and mass marketed public appeal.'

Others said that, however Blair determines his message, it was his 'belief in what he says, and the courage of his convictions', that deserved praise.

It might be argued that both Churchill and Blair have proven their skills in times of war. This survey took place before and during the Iraq war, capturing the mood of readers at a crucial time for Blair.

One reader who voted for him during the Iraq invasion said: 'Despite his current travails, he remains a hugely gifted communicator, who knows how to find the electorate's erogenous zone. His two successive election victories have shown him to be ruthlessly efficient and effective in communicating an agenda that clearly reflects the concerns of the voters.'

3 Sir Richard Branson

Since setting up his first mail-order record company in 1972, Richard Branson has built a global group of more than 200 entertainment, media and travel companies, and is the only businessman in the Top Ten to be nominated by PRWeek readers.

Branson has proven to be the arch self-publicist time and again, always willing to play ball with the media, but with the aim of using his own publicity to boost the value and reputation of his business. Whether it be his relentless pursuit of succeeding on a round-the-world balloon trip, or trying to carry off a bridal look, Branson has used publicity in a way no other public figure has been able to emulate.

'He is a great self-publicist, but limits the exposure to what he wants to give,' said one reader who nominated him.

Perhaps manipulating a peculiarly British weakness, Branson has often played the underdog, especially in his pricing battle against British Airways for his airline, which saw him adopt the consumer's champion persona.

A similar trait, which was admired by several readers, is his ability to take the rough with the smooth. For example, his failed ballooning attempts have still managed to garner public support.

'He has been open in communicating his wins and losses,' said a reader.

'Branson, despite some inconsistencies and failings ... is the one British entrepreneur who has acquired demi-god status in this country, largely due to a deft use of the media arts.'

4 Diana, Princess of Wales

From the moment she became engaged to the Prince of Wales in 1981, Diana was the hottest media story of the century.

She has been admired for her ability to communicate not just by words alone, but by actions and force of personality.

While the 'fairytale' royal marriage and her good looks spurred voracious press interest, Diana was successful in raising awareness of global issues through her humanitarian work, on issues from Aids to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged.

But it was her divorce from Prince Charles, and how she used the media during that time, that received most comment from the readers who nominated her.

'Her Panorama interview with Martin Bashir (was) an amazing object lesson in using the media to the greatest advantage,' said one reader.

'She used the media to raise her profile above that of Charles,' said another.

The public outcry of grief upon her death in 1997 demonstrated that her 'place and affection in the human mind', as one reader described it, were unrivalled.

5 Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough, maker of some of the most-watched nature programmes on television, is more than just an entertainer and educator - he is a conservationist. But has he really done more than anyone else to help save the planet and its diversity of life from extinction?

Many of you thought Attenborough communicated the green message better than anyone else during his more than 50 years of broadcasting.

'Using a range of mass media channels, most clearly TV, his programmes and his boundless enthusiasm for the natural world - and its conservation - have reached millions of people at a time when the world's environment is arguably reaching a point of no return,' claimed one reader.

His work on nature programming began at the BBC in 1954, a path he pursued until 1965, when he became controller of BBC2. But in 1973, he returned to natural history programming, where he has remained.

One reader said Attenborough was an obvious choice because his influence on 'generations of people' will remain long beyond his lifetime.

6 Baroness Margaret Thatcher

The Iron Lady. A nickname first coined by the Soviets, it was one she seemed to enjoy - and is what garnered her strongest recognition as a communicator.

The third prime minister to make it into our chart, Margaret Thatcher should not be considered for reasons of popularity, but for strength and clarity of message.

After becoming Europe's first female prime minister in 1979, Thatcher went on to dominate British politics for the next 11 years, winning three consecutive terms and an epithet for her style of governing: Thatcherism.

'No waffle, no fudging, no massaging the facts,' said one reader on why Thatcher's communication style deserved recognition. 'Just straight shooting, where often a glance or a glare could communicate more than a hundred words.'

Another reader saw her strengths in communication as the backbone to her leadership: 'No matter whether you agreed or disagreed with her policies, there was never any doubt in the public's mind as to the direction the country and her party were headed.'

7 John Lennon

John Lennon is the only artist in the Top Ten. But the man who, with writing partner Paul McCartney in The Beatles, and as a solo artist, penned some of the classic compositions in modern music, wasn't nominated for these achievements alone.

'He used the media to help create a new culture for a whole generation, and promoted the cause of peace,' said one reader.

Songs such as Give Peace a Chance (1969) and Imagine (1971) were forthright statements of Lennon's political views. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono also staged several publicity stunts against the Vietnam war.

Lennon declared the unwanted media attention he was receiving should be put to some use - the promotion of peace.

In 1969, the couple unveiled huge posters and billboards in 11 cities around the world declaring 'War Is Over! If You Want It. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko'.

And who could forget when, earlier that year, they crawled into bed in an Amsterdam hotel and invited the press for a chat. At least the latter had a chance to see who they were talking to on this occasion - Lennon and Ono once held a press conference from inside a white paper bag.

8 Sir David Frost

'He has the unique ability to ask the right question at the right time,' said a reader when nominating Sir David Frost.

As the highest-placed TV journalist in our chart, Frost has one of the most impressive track records for interviews in TV history. From the front line of TV news and entertainment during the past 40 years, Frost has interviewed the six most recent British prime ministers and the six most recent presidents of the US, among other world leaders.

Many might argue that the journalist is not the communicator but his or her subject is. However, the reasoning behind some of the nominations he received suggests Frost's interview technique is worthy of recognition as a way of communicating in itself.

'He is very creative with his questioning, and he isn't afraid to ask the question his audience would most like to hear,' said a reader.

9 Tim Berners-Lee

Do you remember life before the internet? Now we have information at our fingertips 24 hours a day, and it's thanks to computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

The only scientist in the chart, nominated for an idea he had back in 1980 - the World Wide Web - he is perhaps less of a communicator than a facilitator of communication.

'He had the foresight to see that a critical mass of people, with the ability to network their thoughts, would have the power to bring down governments and cure diseases,' said one reader.

Twenty-three years ago, Berners-Lee wrote a software programme for his own use named Enquire. He never published the programme, but used it as the conceptual basis for the World Wide Web, which in 1989 was proposed as a global hypertext project. This gave rise to the first www server.

One reader said Berners-Lee had found 'a practical application that has done more to speed up the dissemination of information than any other invention in the last century.'

Some readers argue Berners-Lee's innovation facilitated an important new medium for the communicators of this new century.

10 Dr David Starkey

History lessons could have been far more interesting had Dr David Starkey been the teacher.

The only historian to be nominated in the Top Ten became Britain's highest-paid TV presenter last year, when Channel 4 paid him a reported £2m to write 25 hours of TV, including an 18-part series on the British monarchy.

One reader explained why Starkey is worthy of such recognition: 'His ability to communicate has democratised history by increasing its accessibility to the British public.' Starkey's brilliant academic career as a historian took a new direction in 1992, when he gained a national profile as a participant in the BBC Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze, before presenting a series for Channel 4 on Henry VIII in 1998.

His ascerbic tongue and forthright expression of his opinions on current affairs, and other issues, have since become a trademark of his presentational style in TV and radio appearances.

Just a few years ago, the Daily Mail labelled him 'the rudest man in Britain'. But a PRWeek reader argued otherwise: 'Starkey's entertaining conversation, yet authoritative demeanour, has sent this period of history (the 16th century) running from the textbooks into a TV whirlwind.'

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