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."


FinalFive said...

Writing pamphlets, or books about events in wartime to keep morale going and citizenry informed is an underrated event - Few realise its importance until long after the event. I would say the same goes to such publications in peacetime.

I find this post essential reading for many, if not all SAF units. It is a well kept tradition that every time a unit reaches a milestone year, some commemorative publication must accompany the celebration. It is immediately noticeable that the priority does not go towards the quality of writing or the accuracy of research. Much more goes into irrelevant concerns such as timing of the book, amount of photos, design and the ultimate bane - PAFF must be able to clear the book together with the necessary security clearance departments. There is this rigid aligning of messaging that simply kills off any bout of creativity left in the Officers and Specialists "assigned" to writing it. They are more careful about preserving their career mileage by writing "safe" stuff. After all, they are all trained to fight, not to write. You might say that staff officers should then do the writing - but then staff officers are concerned with decision papers and papers limited to 4 pages in length. Hardly creative writing by any measure.

Inspiring through writing is a very different exercise. It requires a skill that I sometimes readily believe to be innate and not something that you can pick up after a few attempts.

When the new Specialists and Warrant Officers Institute was launched, I was one of the Officers looking through the material. I was horrified by the lack of proper research, the haphazard arrangement and the absolutely melodramatic writing. When I tried to speak with the relevant senior officers - I was brushed away, despite the fact that I was trying to do my job. One particular Senior Officer accused me openly of putting in subjective and unjustified opinions and that I was delaying the book.

Ignoring my anger at the humiliating treatment I received, I was further disappointed to realise the lack of proper guidance given to the 3rd Sergeant put in charge of writing it. He was the one-man show who had gone about interviewing various WOs and doing his own research (how much material is there out there for him if he wasn't even given proper guidance to finding it?).

I was impressed by his sincerity at getting the book done at first - But then got disheartened later on when i realised that he had his own interests. He got to rub shoulders with the Flag Ranks because of his efforts after all.

It was published and released in limited quantities - I thank God for that. But really, if we want good publications out there, we have to trust in good writers with a fair sense of how best to bring out military history. This is all the more important amidst a citizenry that finds NS the 'bitter pill to swallow'.

David Boey said...

MINDEF/SAF doesn't lack the brainpower or budget to roll-out quality stuff. It lacks commitment.

Book committees whether for ORD magazines or unit anniversaries are largely comprised of officers/WOSEs arrowed the task who can't wait to get the burden off their backs.

In my old job, some NTU journalism interns showed me their self-published work and the quality of these short run books in terms of story content, layout and picture selection eclipses many SAF unit publications.

When the commitment is there, the SAF can produce outstanding stuff.

The Tengah Air Base anniversary book, The Cutting Edge of the Air Force, showcases the quality of work the SAF can achieve if the heart is there and when higher command gives authors freedom to manoeuvre.