The Creel Committee: 100 Years of Strategic Communication

America’s Answer, one of the films produced by the Creel Committee.

The Wall Street Journal marks the 100-year anniversary of World War I’s commencement by noting 100 legacies of the war, technological, political and social shifts of the era that affect us to this day. Propaganda is among the listed legacies: “how governments tried to influence their citizens with bold, widely circulated messages in posters, leaflets, newspapers, speeches and other emerging media such as film.”

The British and Germans had a head start on the war, giving them a head start in  propaganda that was creative, vivid and inflammatory. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, who had won reelection with the slogan “he kept us out of war,” knew he had to marshal public opinion as America entered the conflict. The president established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and named George Creel, journalist and Wilson supporter, as its chairman. The purpose was propaganda, which as numerous PR observers point out had not yet received its negative connotation among the public.

In his autobiography, Creel asserts that he did not seek “propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.'” Per author David Hackett Fischer, “Creel combined the principles of Woodrow Wilson with the temperament of Teddy Roosevelt. Barely five feet seven inches tall, he boxed with professional prize fighters, married a prominent actress, played the lead role in a western movie, and vastly enjoyed the excitement of politics.”

The CPI became commonly known as the Creel Committee as its leader promulgated pro-war, pro-America messages with the zeal he had shown in previous years as a muckraking journalist. The committee used and adapted the communication channels of its era–live event, display, print, telegraph/cable, music, and the “new media” of radio and film.

In a 1922 article, Creel describes how he used the wireless advantage of radio to send American war notices to the farthest corners of the conflict, circumventing overloaded, foreign-owned cables. His committee also assimilated the burgeoning technology of motion pictures, producing patriotic films such as Pershing’s Crusaders and America’s Answer. The ancient art of oration met 20th century cinema with the “Four-Minute Men,” a corps of 75,000 public speakers who delivered Creel Committee talking points during breaks between reels.

The Creel Committee assembled a troupe of top illustrators for poster design, including James Montgomery Flagg, creator of the legendary “I Want You” image of Uncle Sam urging enlistment. It published The Official Bulletin, containing positive coverage of the war effort and mass distributed to newspapers and government installations.

Several noted communicators of the 20th century either worked directly for the Creel Committee or wartime organizations associated with it:

Edward Bernays–Often called the father of public relations (a title he encouraged while he outlived his peers), Bernays led the committee’s Latin News Service. Part of the committee team that accompanied President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he sent out a press release prompting news coverage that “propaganda” was at the heart of the team’s mission, igniting a firestorm.

Carl R. Byoir–Circulation director for Hearst when Creel recruited him to the committee, Byoir acted in a chief operating officer role. His PR firm founded in 1930, Carl R. Byoir & Associates, became one of the world’s largest.

Arthur W. Page–Head of corporate communications at AT&T from 1927 to 1947, Page worked in the G-2-D propaganda subsection for American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Intelligence in France. According to Page biographer Noel L. Griese, Creel Committee officials worked closely with AEF propaganda staff. In 1945, Page wrote the press release that Harry Truman used to announce the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Walter Lippmann–Winner of Pulitzer Prizes in 1958 and 1962, journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann encouraged President Wilson to form what would become the Creel Committee. During the war, he worked with Arthur W. Page in G-2-D. After the war, Lippmann wrote the highly regarded Public Opinion and criticized Creel.

Lippmann’s criticism mirrored the prevailing outlook on the Creel Committee as its funding ended amid the armistice and George Creel’s antagonism toward members of Congress. The word “propaganda” became a pejorative due to backlash against the biased, manipulative torrents of communication produced by Allies and Central Powers alike.

In the century since the Creel Committee, it is easy to spot its excesses, dismiss its simplistic appeals, and ultimately condemn it as the prototype for media madmen from Madison Avenue to the Third Reich. Still, the Creel Committee stands as a study in strategic communication, evidence of the power of unified messaging disseminated through an array of channels to multiple target segments. The global village of McLuhan was founded in the first official global conflict. The Creel Committee recognized and addressed the village.

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The Atomic Press Release

August 6 marks the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

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V for Victory and Viral

Churchill_VJuly 19 marks the anniversary of World War II’s “V for Victory” campaign. New York Times article of the day describes it as a “nerve war” against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Launched by the BBC, championed by Winston Churchill, and executed by countless brave people in conquered countries, V for Victory was quintessential propaganda. It was also viral marketing in an era when the only computers were a handful of top-secret, room-sized machines (also part of the fight against the Nazis, used to break their coded messages).

The concept began in early 1941 with a BBC radio broadcast by Belgian refugee Victor De Lavelaye. He urged those under occupation to use “V” as a rallying symbol, the first letter in the French “Victoire,” the Flemish “Vrijheid,” and the English “Victory.” BBC editors embraced the concept, and the service beamed the official campaign to occupied Europe.

Per the NYT account, a BBC announcer with the nom-de-guerre “Colonel V. Britton” read a statement from Prime Minister Churchill:

The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.

Col.  Britton urged listeners to create “V” graffiti, to chalk or paint the letter on walls and pavement. The “V” theme continued as it was construed as the Roman symbol for the number “5.” Listeners were instructed to read Daniel 5, beginning with the fifth verse–the “writing on the wall” foretelling the downfall of the Babylonian empire that had enslaved the Jews.

Additionally, Col. Britton told the audience to tap out Morse code for the letter “V,” three dots and a dash for the benefit of friend and invader alike. That rhythm mimicked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (again, V as 5), a motif likened to “fate knocking at the door,” an extra affront to the Germans that co-opted the greatest work of one of their greatest composers. The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s call sign for its broadcasts to continental Europe throughout the war.

V for Victory spread across Europe, as one defiantly drawn or tapped “V” sparked another and another. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly countered, claiming the campaign was a Third Reich invention signifying the German “Viktoria.” The Nazis posted their “V” on banners and newspaper front pages and used Beethoven’s Fifth in their radio broadcasts. It is true brilliance when you can get the competition (enemy) to carry your message.

V for Victory was viral marketing. A major media platform, the BBC, created the spark and the people did the rest. The great communicator of the age, Winston Churchill, continually flashed the V sign for photographers, maintaining his role in the movement. Seven decades before social media let people strike blows against dictators and report from battlefields, V for Victory gave voice to Hitler’s involuntary–and temporary–subjects.

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