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.