When I began researching the origins of careers in public relations, I came across Sir Henry Cole, who I argued in my 2010 presentation at the International History of PR conference (subsequently adapted for publication in Public Relations Review), should be considered as one of the originators of our modern occupation predating much of the US-history as his era was the mid 1800s.
This remarkable man has inspired post #9 in my 12 Days of Christmas series. Cole was an innovator with a natural ability to develop ideas that captured the public imagination. He designed Summerley’s tea service, co-founded The Journal of Design and Manufacturers, conceived the Great Exhibition of 1851, became the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum – and commissioned the first ever commercial Christmas card in 1843.
These cards were sold for one shilling and enabled Cole, who had come up with the idea for the worlds’ first postage stamp, the Penny Black, to promote the first Penny Post public postal service which had begun in 1840.
Queen Victoria is noted here to have been the first Royal to have sent festive cards – and undoubtedly a large percentage of the millions of modern Christmas cards continue to be sent by organisations following her promotional lead. Somewhat surprisingly, I read that the first ever official White House seasonal card wasn’t sent until 1953 by President Eisenhower. The 2013 pop-up equivalent, signed by Barack and Michelle Obama, has just been posted – all 1.6 million of them – and is apparently already selling on eBay.
Today, many organisations have opted for an e-card rather than incurring the time and expense of printing and posting paper versions. Questions of the etiquette of sending Christmas cards are hotly debated – here is the BBC’s advice. The topic of the impact of corporate Christmas cards has been robustly discussed in the CIPR LinkedIn group.
Personally I’m not convinced that the digital Christmas card is good public relations (I’m not fond of the mass mailed type either though). Most lack any originality or personal connection with the recipient. Some seems to be sent as marketing messages to general lists rather than even to an organisation’s actual customer base. The ease of creating an html design via Mailchimp or similar services encourages their mass distribution at pretty much zero cost. Others opt for a more interactive experience – although I tend to be too bah-humbug to bother to click on these, whilst those with a more generous spirit advise us that they are donating to charity and sending this emessage rather than spending money on physical cards. Ironically, the decline in posting Christmas cards is probably one factor leading to privatisation of the Royal Mail service – it might have been a more charitable act therefore to have kept sending them – and supporting charity cards (although there’s another argument there about the income actually generated for causes).
Regardless of your views on print, digital cards or no cards, one fact is that none will ever be worth anything (unless of course you are famous). I love the fact that last Saturday one of the original Cole Christmas cards, which had been owned by the same family for 170 years, was sold at auction for £4,200.
My argument to champion Sir Henry Cole in our PR history is further supported by this achievement over 131 years after his death. What a true PR genius he was.