What is it about?

In November 1955, the British Family Planning Association’s had their first major television coup, which opened mass media to stories about their organisation and the birth control cause more generally. This paper describes how this event was engineered through dedicated Public Relations efforts after decades of false starts. It unpacks the PR processes involved in attaining this coverage, and considers the real-world impact of the broadcast for the FPA, a leading contraceptive (birth control) provider in 20th century Britain.

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Why is it important?

The success of historic birth control provision is often attributed to female demand for reproductive control in wider society. Popular culture, which took up the concept of family limitation especially in the 1960s, is often read as evidence of this demand. But little work has been undertaken to consider how contraceptive providers worked to engineer demand in culture and society from the inside. This paper suggests that birth control providers, such as the British Family Planning Association worked to elicit awareness and acceptance of their services from an early stage, using nascent mass media technologies, and sympathetic public figures. This has significance for the history of birth control/ contraception, for the history of sexuality, and also for the history of PR. This paper explores the publicity techniques that were being adopted at a grassroots level by the Family Planning Association just as the PR industry was professionalizing. To this extent, it offers a case study of the adoption of early PR techniques by non-corporate bodies. This helps us to understanding the pro-active agency of Non-Profit Organisations, and also the significant contribution of PR and PR techniques in defending and enhancing the reputation of controversial non-corporate agencies.


This paper is the result of many years of tracking and searching for incidences where contraception was cited on British television, picked up as I conducted other work on family planning and the condom industry (London Rubber Company). When I embarked upon the project, I thought it would be fairly easy to scoop up TV appearances and store them up for future use as evidence of PR at work, but I found that this was terribly difficult to do. Historic examples of the inner workings of PR campaigns are tricky enough to piece together from the vestiges of campaigns still floating around, but this project was partially hard because British TV is, in itself, notoriously problematic to research. This is because the majority of broadcast programmes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s were simply never kept - we don't have them, and we often don't know the detail of what they contained or how, exactly, they were presented. And yet television clearly had a dramatic impact for those organisations that could not, for reasons of budget or subject matter, make use of commercial broadcast advertising. So this paper is less about the programmes themselves and more the activity surrounding them - initial hopes and aspirations; knocked-back attempts to exploit a new medium; reputational damage done to the FPA on account of another birth control stakeholder, Marie Stopes; the gradual professionalisation of PR practice within a small and poor organisation; the long-hoped for take-up of a story and the immediate real-world results that the long-for coverage resulted in. It's really just the tip of the iceberg as there is much to be explored about the FPA's ongoing relationship with mass media, but the first real incidence of dedicated TV coverage in November 1955 - which is explored in detail in this paper - gives a starting point for future research.

Jessica Borge
University of London School of Advanced Study

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This page is a summary of: Bandwidth lost: family planners and post-war television, Corporate Communications An International Journal, July 2020, Emerald, DOI: 10.1108/ccij-11-2019-0139.
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