PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM: Should the administration draw on thepropaganda models of past conflicts to communicate the current waragainst terrorism? Douglas Quenqua reports

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


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,


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


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


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


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


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.


Charlotte Beers

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


Karen Hughes

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.

Torie Clarke

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


Kenton Keith

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.

Laura Bush

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.

Karl Rove

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.

Tom Ridge

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.

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