What is ‘Received Pronunciation’?

When people come to Britain, having learned English in another country, they are often amazed by the number of different ways there are of speaking the language. Britain is not, after all, a very big place, yet the accents of and dialects of Yorkshire, say, or Cornwall, County Durham or Birmingham, let alone Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are surprisingly diverse. Even native speakers can sometimes find it hard to understand someone from another part of Britain. For people whose first language is not English it can be a nightmare.

There is no such thing as ‘standard English’. The nearest we have to that is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP. The word ‘received’ in ‘Received Pronunciation’ is used in its old sense of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ (as in ‘received wisdom’).

RP is what you sometimes hear referred to as ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’ or even ‘the Queen’s English’, although none of these terms is particularly useful in defining it. These days we hear all sorts of accents at Oxford University or on the BBC, and the only person who speaks like the Queen is the Queen. In fact, the British Library* reckons that only about 2% of the population of the UK speaks in Received Pronunciation.

RP is more or less based on the English of the South East and East of England. It was first identified as a particular way of speaking in 1869. Its influence really became significant, though, when the BBC was founded as a national radio broadcaster. Lord Reith, the first head of the BBC, wanted a standardised way of talking for his presenters which would be equally clear and acceptable throughout Britain. RP was chosen, even though for most listeners it represented a relatively upper-class manner of speech. The point was that RP, unlike other accents, does not give any indication of where in the country the speakers comes from. I sometimes call it ‘Vanilla English’ because it has all those interesting (but confusing) local features left out of it.

As mentioned above, presenters on the BBC are no longer all RP speakers. The emphasis today is on clarity of speech and on understandability, neither of which are necessarily affected by accent alone. Yet when my clients tell me that they want to speak ‘properly’, or even ‘posh’, I know it is normally Received Pronunciation they have in mind, even if they have never heard that phrase. Like Lord Reith in 1922, they are looking for a manner of speaking which is equally clear and acceptable wherever they go in Britain, with no distracting regional features.

As a tutor I am lucky in that respect. I come from the south east of England and I had the kind of education where I was encouraged to speak in Received Pronunciation (my real natural accent is more Essex). I know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and I can pass that skill onto my clients. Lord Reith, I am sure, would be very proud.


*If you are interested in RP and the accents of Britain, the British Library website is an excellent place to visit – http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/received-pronunciation/

How you do get things into the newspapers?

I am always saying that Public Relations is all about how you relate to your public, and there are many ways to do that. One way most people know about is the press release sent to a local paper.

I was discussing PR with an old friend of mine the other day. She’s a government press officer – a job I used to do by the way, although she works for a different department. The point she was making was that her office hardly ever issues press releases to local newspapers these days. Instead they post news articles onto their website, then use social media like Twitter or blogging to direct journalists to read them.

The reason this works is because newspapers, who have far fewer actual reporters than they used to, actively trawl the internet for material to turn into news stories. Does this mean that we no longer need press releases? Well…no. Probably.

Certainly social media have become vital channels for PR activities and their importance has rocketed over the last five years. The PR team at Amazon surely know what they’re doing and when they launched the latest new Kindle Fire tablet they did it with 14 tweets, not with a press release. Each tweet focused on a different specification of the product. Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for UK Government Communications, declared at a conference last year that the press release was dead. He said that press officers should be content producers and realise that tweets, infographics or videos may be a more relevant method of disseminating a message. In the PR industry his words were met with a mixture of horror and a fair amount of ‘well-so-what-we’ve-known-that-for-years’.

Most PR professionals, though, are of the opinion that there is still a use for the press release in the overall marketing mix for businesses. A well-written release (and yes, they do have to be well-written) can still get the attention of the media as long as it is part of a thought-out strategy and not just something thrown together, hoping for the best. Social media have added to, but not replaced, the so-called ‘traditional’ channels of communication with the media. In fact the most traditional – ongoing relationships with journalists – is still the most important.

When it comes to small businesses this is really all good news. The explosion in social media has provided us with a whole new range of methods to get our message across. Exactly what kind of social media is the best fit for your business depends, among other things, on what kind of business it is. For example, if it’s B2B you may find LinkedIn most useful; if you want to communicate with the public at large you may well favour Facebook and/or Twitter. You may well have considered the composing and distribution of a press release as one of those ‘dark arts’ best left to the professionals. Now – hooray! – you have a whole raft of online communications channels which are free, easy to use, and terrifically exciting and modern. Just sign up and you can fire your business message all over the globe and watch your media profile rise.

Beware, though. Just having lots of extra ways to communicate does not reduce the importance of (a) having a proper PR strategy, (b) choosing your key messages with care, or (c) knowing how to write effective copy, even if it is only 140 characters. If you start filling cyberspace with random, ill thought-out, badly worded and misspelt tweets, blogs and posts, it will not reflect well on your business. In fact, used badly social media is just as effective at showing how useless people are as it is at advertising their products (have a look through Facebook sometime if you don’t believe me).

Before you dive in, think carefully and honestly about what your limitations are, and then think about getting professional help. The fact is, for example, that most people don’t know how to write good copy – after all, that’s why we have colleges to teach it. Okay, it means paying a bit, but if you do it yourself and do it badly, you have an awful lot to lose. And anyway is using social media really free? Maintaining a quality presence online is very time-consuming and in business time equals money, so there is a cost even if you decide to do it all yourself.

So – let us postpone the death knell of the press release while we embrace those new-fangled social media. They each have their place in a well-organised PR strategy. At the same time let’s remember that they are all just channels to communicate. Before you choose your channels you have to be sure of what you want to communicate, and why you need to communicate, and how to communicate it in the most effective way.