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Relations and Messages: The Case of the Information Research Department

July 5, 2011

Over the past few years public diplomacy scholarship has increasingly advocated a focus on relationship building rather than messaging.  That is the typical emphasis on ‘getting the message out’ misses the point that it’s not going to do any good if no one is listening.  Of course when you start looking at real cases the opposition between messaging and relations tends to be less clear cut.

The history of British public diplomacy contains a very nice case of this in the work of the Information Research Department.  Active between 1948 and 1977 the IRD was a semi autonomous department of the Foreign Office and a major element of the UK’s Cold War information activity.

The IRD gathered information on Soviet and communist activities produced reports and talking points and disseminated them domestically and internationally (no Smith-Mundt in the UK!) through a network of trusted contacts.  Drawing on experience from the Second World War  the IRD approach was that information work should be truthful but would be more credible if it wasn’t linked to official sources hence their mode of operation was grey propaganda – their bulletins were circulated to embassies and other offices with a cover sheet that had to be removed before it was passed to journalists, foreign officials or other contacts.  The information could be freely used but should not be attributed to the UK government.

The point is that for this strategy to work the IRD had to have access to a network of trusted contacts who could disseminate its messages – here the overt work of information officers in UK embassies provided the channel through which IRD material could be disseminated.

The IRD is one of the most controversial aspects of British information work (The introduction to Defty 2004 has a useful discussion of the historiography of the IRD).  On one hand the work is very similar to the way that political parties or PR companies operate but because it was being done by a semi-secret government department it attracted considerable suspicion as more material on its work became available.

Defty, A. (2004) Britiain, America and Anti- Communist Propaganda, 1945-53. Abingdon: Routledge.

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