Sunday, August 15, 2010
Informing the People: Bolstering C2D during WW2
If you find informing the people a peacetime challenge, think about how you might do it during a shooting war when you're losing battles, losing lives and losing time.
The British approach to what is nowadays known as defence information management (DIM, what an unfortunate acronym) during the Second World War holds key lessons for information and public relations practitioners.
Britiain's Ministry of Information (MOI) and His Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO) published more than 100 titles to counter Axis propaganda. In the pre-Internet age, these low cost pamphlets were snapped up by Britons hungry for news on the war and road maps to their uncertain future.
Long before anyone coined the term Total Defence, British authorities enlisted the help of home-based writers, book designers and illustrators to publish these pamphlets. In reality, the "pamphlets" were books of between 40 to 100-plus pages in length, illustrated with pictures of frontline action and maps showing theatres of operation. The work was done rapidly. Many of these books had a short gestation period and were planned, written, cleared by British policy-makers and security and released during the war.
A HMSO book, Informing the People, describes how the HMSO pamphlets were done.
It said:"... although most pamphlets appeared anonymously, many were written by experienced authors of established reputation, who could write well and thus provide a graphic, lively and easily comprehensible story. These authors were provided full facilities to compile their records and, whilst security might demand some excisions from the resulting manuscripts, or delay in publication, their only instruction was to seek the truth, and to tell what they found."
While some writers tend to gravitate towards subjects like pilots, submariners or Commandos, which are easier to write about because their job scope seems exciting, the HMSO pamphlets embraced low-profile and sometimes arcane subjects. These include writing a 94-page book on the role of the post office in war, shipbuilders and even the blood transfusion service.
A British netizen suggested I read these and I've amassed some 40 different titles over the past half year.
One of my favourite, Transport goes to War, devotes 80 pages of text and pictures to the unglamorous, low-profile yet vitally important functions of the British transportation system. The blog posts on the National Day Parade 2010 Mobile Column's lesser-known elements like traffic marshals and the signboard party were inspired by this WW2 book.
To the credit of the authors, many Britons treasured these books and kept them long after the war. They were dubbed "the first draft of history".
HMSO said: "The legacy is as fascinating and valuable to today's readers as it has already proved to be to the official and unofficial historians who have made extensive use of the material during the following half-century. The sceptical should remember that the pamphlets' authors, with serious and respectable reputations to protect, had every opportunity after the war to repudiate their work for the Ministry, or to qualify the record they left. None of them has done so.
"Several have written of these experiences in their autobiographies. None of them has cast any post-war reservation upon the reliability of their wartime texts, or of the spirit in which they were commissioned."
Reviewing the strategy of informing the people through these instant books, many of which were published during the war, HMSO concludes that an upfront and honest editorial approach was the best way to bolster commitment to defence.
I've looked at the HMSO titles I've collected and this is certainly true. The loss of of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, retreats in the desert and loss of Greece and Crete in the Mediterranean theatre are all discussed with a candour which one might not expect for a book released while ops were in progress.
HMSO explains why it preferred this strategy. It said: "... the safest and surest way to bolster and support morale was to keep the people fully and promptly informed of the bad news as well as the good. Slowly they came to see that honesty and explanation were far more effective than campaigns insulting to the intelligence and courage of even the faint-hearted."
"Other governments used the series, and copied it, and it had an effect upon the enemy as well. Dr Goebbels both attacked it publicly and privately commended it, holding up individual titles as models for his staff to learn from.
"That the series attracted such worldwide attention, support and imitation demonstrates, better than could anything else that, by their use of pamphlets, both MOI and HMSO were doing an important job for Britain, doing it well, and helping to win the war."
Posted by David Boey at 10:39 AM