PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM: Should the administration draw on the propaganda models of past conflicts to communicate the current war against terrorism?
Douglas Quenqua – 3 Dec 2001
In the weeks after a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British cruise ship Lusitania in 1915, killing 128 American civilians and starting the US down the road to World War I, public opinion in this country galvanized. Sympathy for the Germans evaporated, and a determination to enter the war in Europe took its place. But President Woodrow Wilson, a lover of all things diplomatic, decided to wait.
Eventually, public opinion began to drift. By the time America finally entered the war two years later, much of America sat by unconvinced. Wilson knew that that was no way to send out troops. So in 1917, six days after declaring war, he created a committee that would tend to America’s morale.
He called it the Committee on Public Information (CPI).
With a pushy, muckraking journalist named George Creel at the helm, the CPI waged a war of words, images, and ideas to fortify support for the war, domestically and overseas. The earnest posters and racially simplistic caricatures of foreign enemies may look quaint now, but Creel ran a sophisticated campaign, putting publicists, novelists, academics, advertising executives, and filmmakers to work all over the world. He once boasted that CPI employed 150,000 people.
It was a communications effort unprecedented in ambition, and the tactics – if not the numbers – set the standard for propaganda campaigns throughout the 20th century.
Of course, all centuries come to an end.
In the first few months of our current conflict, we have seen countless entities – government and otherwise – launch individual attempts at diplomacy.
The Pentagon has hired its own PR firm. Navy planes are dropping leaflets on Afghanistan. The White House and British Prime Minister Tony Blair set up Coalition Information Centers (CIC) in their respective countries and Pakistan. Presidential advisor Karl Rove flew to Beverly Hills to discuss the war effort with Hollywood execs. Congress, the State Department, and the Defense Department are taking turns asking advertising and PR hotshots what they should do. Yet there is almost universal agreement that our message isn’t getting across. What exactly are all these experts doing?
Ironically, many of them have been doing the same thing: telling the government it needs to coordinate its PR efforts. Too many messengers are muddling the message, they say, and they should all be getting their marching orders from a centralized source – one with the power of the President behind it, just like it was in the old days.
Land of propaganda
But such comparisons are complicated at best, and at worst, dangerous.
America and its government have changed. The federal workforce has exploded in size, as have regulations for hiring private citizens to do its work.
Post-Watergate reforms erected firewalls between departments making some coordination difficult, if not illegal. The American mindset – particularly regarding race and violence – renders old tactics offensive and obsolete.
And this conflict is fundamentally different than those that have come before it. Maybe the old, proven model is no longer applicable.
But America has always been good at churning out effective propaganda (a word that didn’t pick up its derogative baggage until the Nazis tried their hand at it in the ’30s and ’40s). So good, in fact, that Americans are by and large unaware that many of its favorite works of art are artifacts of the government’s propaganda program (Casablanca, anyone?). It is worthwhile to examine what made those campaigns so effective, if for no other reason than to extract whatever elements might still apply.
Many believe the keys to Creel’s success were his direct line to the President – he was hand-picked by Wilson – and the latitude of that relationship afforded him to operate unrestrained. He staffed the agency with his own people, and divided it into dozens of divisions and subdivisions, each focusing on its own agenda and audience. Among these groups were the Division of News, the Division of Films, the Division of Advertising, and the Division of Women’s War Work. Creel’s workers and volunteers held "mass-meetings" in small towns all over the country. "Four Minute Men" would give short speeches in movie theaters about the virtue of enlisting. Volunteer translators fed news to the foreign-language press "designed to combat ignorance and disaffection," as Creel put it. "(We) organized and directed 23 societies and leagues designed to appeal to certain classes and particular foreign-language groups." The Committee even issued "voluntary guidelines" to the press.
After the war ended, the CPI was disbanded, and individual government agencies took on the task of doing America’s talking. But when World War II erupted, once again a single organization was created for the task. Coincidentally, it was another famously outspoken journalist – hand-picked by the President – who suggested and then led the effort.
Different war, same message
Elmer Davis was a radio personality with CBS news. On the evening of March 2, 1942, he launched into an on-air diatribe against the government for having too many agencies conducting their own communications campaigns.
"Why they are not centralized, why no unified program is followed, is beyond the private citizen’s comprehension," Davis cried.
President Roosevelt took the suggestion seriously, creating the Office of War Information (OWI), and installing Davis as its leader, with "full authority to eliminate all overlapping and duplication, and to discontinue in any department any informational activity which is not necessary or useful to the war effort."
Davis’ campaign resembled Creel’s in many ways. He sought help from the brightest minds in every field of communications or entertainment, and had free reign to use them as he pleased. But the OWI put a much greater emphasis on overseas communication than did the CPI. Its Overseas Operations Branch had special bureaus for publications, radio, news, and movies, among others. It established outposts in more than 20 neutral and allied nations, dropped leaflets over enemy territory, and doggedly fed its side of the story to foreign journalists.
At home, the OWI again issued guidelines to the press, and advised Hollywood on how to make more "helpful" movies. Compared to the CPI, however, the OWI practically manhandled Hollywood. Studios were requested to submit all screenplays to the federal government so that it could ask for changes at an early and inexpensive stage in the production process. The OWI even distributed a list of questions to all studio heads that they should ask themselves before making a film. First among those question was, "Will this picture help win the war?"
While such extremes seem impossible in today’s censorship-sensitive climate, the tactics being employed all have the ring of familiarity. The White House has asked for help from Hollywood and journalists (though both have spent more time publicly debating their own cooperation than actually helping). Leaflet drops have resumed throughout the bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Advertising and PR execs have been consulted, and are eagerly cooperating in various ways. Relationships with foreign and particularly Muslim journalists are being tended to like they haven’t been in years, with foreign outposts opening in hostile territories.
Who’s in charge here?
But the primary difference remains: No single person or entity is running the show. What in the past was always done under authority of a pushy professional with the President’s blessing is now done by at least four different entities with varying levels of authority and little coordination – a three-ring circus with no emcee.
Which might be exactly right.
One person talking a lot about this lately is Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide. One of the private sector’s most prominent consultants in America’s newest propaganda campaign, he recently testified before the House Committee on International Relations, and has advised under secretary of state Charlotte Beers.
He applauds specific steps the government has taken to coordinate its campaign, chief among them the CIC, the Office of Homeland Security, and the authority given to Beers. But given the nature of this conflict, he says, that may be as much coordination as America should have.
"There is a complexity to the nature of this war, where things are not nearly as black and white, and objectives change and will continue to change," he says. "The natural instinct is that everything should be coordinated, but things are very different now. You can’t just rely on the old model." Perhaps, Leslie says, the construct we have is precisely what we need for this war. A fluid model for a fluid conflict, a deft machine of many parts going where a homogenous, lumbering unit cannot.
It is just one suggestion among many, but it does have the advantage of momentum. It seems unlikely that the government can or will create another CPI or OWI. People complained about those organizations in their time as well, but the criticism faded when the wars were won. If America emerges from this war as fortunate as it did from those, the various departments who conducted the communications effort will most likely reap that same benefit.
KEY PLAYERS IN THE NEW PROPAGANDA WAR
Under secretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy. A lifelong staple of Madison Avenue, Beers started her new role on October 2. As such, the queen of advertising is now responsible for most of the government’s overseas PR efforts concerning the perception of America.
Advisor to President Bush One of Bush’s closest and most trusted advisors, Hughes (ex-White House communications director) is in charge of the Coalition Information Centers (CIC). She initiates conference calls between several key figures in the propaganda campaign, and continues to help shape White House messages.
Assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Department of Defense Clarke leads the Pentagon’s own PR effort, which is outsourced to The Rendon Group for four months. Formerly of Bush Sr.’s administration and Hill & Knowlton, Clarke is a rare sight at the podium, preferring to allow the folksy secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld face the media himself.
CIC spokesperson. A former diplomat, Keith has considerable knowledge of local values and fears in the Middle East, and can speak Arabic. Hence he appears often on Al-Jazeera TV to convey the US’ message.
First lady Bush has earned the nickname comforter-in-chief for her efforts to allay fears at home. She is also at the helm, with British Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Blair, of an effort to spread the word of the Taliban’s record of abuse toward women.
White House advisor and administration’s liaison to Hollywood. As the unlikely liaison to Hollywood, Rove recently flew to Beverly Hills to discuss the film industry’s role in the war effort.
Director, Office of Homeland Security Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, was recently made the US’ first director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security. The Bush administration hopes to brand him as the face of national security.