Propaganda and Public Relations, Government

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Propaganda and Public Relations, Government. Propaganda is a deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and then behave in a manner desired by the source; public relations, a branch of propaganda, is a related process intended to enhance the relationship between an organization and the public. Both, in turn, are related to advertising. Bill Backer, in The Care and Feeding of Ideas (1993), suggests that advertising and propaganda are half brothers. An advertisement connects something with human desires; propaganda shapes the infinite into concrete images.

Propaganda has always been a strategm of government and the military. It has always been part of military recruitment, albeit in an earlier era restricted to colorful uniforms or military parades. Propaganda has always been a necessity for any government actively seeking to mobilize its citizens. The American Revolution, for example, would have been inconceivable without making the case for revolution generally known. Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense (1776) sold perhaps 500,000 copies in a country with 3 million inhabitants. Nearly four score and seven years later, “Lincoln freed the slaves.” It does not trivialize the Emancipation Proclamation to remember it partly as a piece of political propaganda, originally restricted by Abraham Lincoln solely to those parts of the South already under Union control. The proclamation was more than a statement of government policy toward slaves; its promulgation assisted the recruitment of black soldiers and helped deter British recognition of the Confederacy, and as such, it served military ends.

Not surprisingly, propaganda came of age in World War I, as all major combatants created agencies to regulate and censor the flow of information, aid in recruitment, and sell the moral validity of the war effort to those on the home front and battlefront. The most effective recruiting device for the American military in World War I was arguably James Montgomery Flagg's recruiting poster, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” American war propaganda was shaped through the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information, headed by journalist George Creel. A Speaker's Bureau (a pre‐radio necessity) of 75,000 “Four‐Minute Men” visited schools, churches, and other public places, combining up‐to‐the‐minute news from the battlefront with brief patriotic appeals to support the war effort.

The war saw the emergence of pejorative connotations that have surrounded the concept of propaganda up to the present. Instead of realizing the close relationship among morale, education, and propaganda, Americans considered propaganda a synonym for government lies, and that interpretation has remained to today.

The 1920s saw the emergence of public relations, a term first used in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson in a message to Congress. Edward L. Bernays introduced public relations counsel in his Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923), and the decade saw the general acceptance of the profession by business and government, if not by every military commander.

New Deal America institutionalized propaganda and public relations within American society. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted his policies directly through public press conferences and “fireside chats,” radio addresses to the American people. His promotion of the Lend‐Lease Act and Agreements in 1940–41 is an example. At a press conference in December 1940, Roosevelt introduced the idea of giving away war material to those fighting Nazi Germany with a simple analogy: “Suppose my neighbor's house is on fire and I have a length of garden hose …” In a “fireside chat” two weeks later, the president invoked a larger moral purpose: “America must be the great arsenal of democracy.” Here was the selling of policy using the talents of the propagandist and public relations counsel.

The documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz made films for the New Deal about social problems—the Dust Bowl and flooding in the Mississippi Valley—both depicting natural disasters as the result of unchecked individual actions, both offering the New Deal as uniquely capable of solving physical or natural disasters through enlightened state policies. Roosevelt's appeal to those better off than the “one‐third of a nation ill‐housed, ill‐clothed, ill‐fed” was documented by photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), whose depiction of rural poverty helped justify federal relief programs and made people aware of the role of photography in public rela‐tions campaigns.

The military got the picture. During World War II, the army's Bureau of Public Relations did a better job of managing news from the battlefront than a competing civilian agency, the Office of War Information (OWI). All newsreel footage shot in various theaters of war was first subject to military censorship; and all photographs were subject to censorship, particularly if they showed the faces of American dead.

Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall commissioned Hollywood director Frank Capra to explain the war to millions of soldiers in a series of seven hour‐length orientation films entitled Why We Fight. The first, Prelude to War, was released in 1942; an eighth film, War Comes to America, Part II, survives only as a final shooting script. Capra's propaganda films divide the world neatly into forces of light and darkness; enemy footage is reedited to make clear the dangers of totalitarianism. Though the precise impact of the films is hard to gauge, the Why We Fight series was the most elaborate statement of war aims produced by any part of the federal government in World War II.

The Cold War proved a boom time for informational materials aimed at the hearts and minds of the “captive” peoples of Eastern Europe. The Voice of America, created in 1950 to broadcast controlled information to countries “behind the Iron Curtain,” was soon joined by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The United States Information Agency (USIA) became a separate agency of Cold War propaganda in 1953; the end of the Cold War has also meant that the USIA is to be reunited with the Department of State, reflecting its lesser importance, or perhaps the realization that official messages are more successfully transmitted through nongovernmental agencies. In the 1950s, the USIA produced a large number of informational films, shown generally in 16mm in nontheatrical distribution with foreign‐language soundtracks; it also sponsored libraries of American literature in USIA branches all over the world. Cold War radio and television broadcasting still survives as Radio Marti and TV Marti, broadcasts from Miami sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency and intended to undermine Fidel Castro in Cuba.

The Vietnam War showed the problems of military information management in an unpopular war, one ostensibly free of overt censorship of civilian news organizations, though military helicopters were certainly not obliged to take hostile newsmen (and women) wherever they wished to go. The biggest source of complaint was the military's contribution to President Lyndon B. Johnson's handling of the war, the so‐called “credibility gap.” The discrepancy between official optimism and what reporters saw as “actual” battlefield failure led the official Vietnam Joint United States Public Affairs Office to hold daily afternoon briefings for news representatives, soon derisively known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” Pentagon spokesmen reported astronomical numbers of enemy dead—always far higher than the numbers of Americans killed. Nowhere was less done to coordinate military battlefield information needs with the citizens' right to know than in these ill‐conceived briefings. Indeed, it might seem in retrospect that Daniel Boorstin's book The Image (1962) in which the “pseudo‐event”—a non‐event that occurs primarily in order to be reported—was tailor‐made for the information handed out at the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

The Vietnam War taught lessons to the military about the value of censorship, overall management of the news, and the need for more sophisticated public relations personnel. The 1991 Persian Gulf War reflected these changes. Media coverage often missed what was actually happening, contributing to battlefield victory by reinforcing Saddam Hussein's (incorrect) belief that the main Allied Coalition attack was sure to come through Kuwait City from the gulf, instead of around fixed desert positions. News management now seems a well‐established military policy, even if at the cost of absolute freedom of the press; it also underscores a new importance of propaganda and public relations to the military commander.

As Philip M. Taylor points out in his Global Communications (1997), in October 1995, the U.S. Air Force created its first Information Warfare Squadron (the 609th Squadron, stationed in South Carolina). Enemies today target civilian airlines; they slip bombs into checked luggage; today's terrorists can also engage in chemical, biological, or electronic warfare and be capable of greater destruction than an entire regiment in the field, impervious to attack by conventional armed troops. Accordingly, one now sees the addition of Information Warfare to the military arsenal. No longer is there a clear dividing line between public information and military psychological operations; “infowar” entails all of the following: command and control warfare, intelligence‐based warfare, electronic warfare, psychological warfare, computer hacker warfare, economic information warfare, and cyberwarfare. In such an interconnected military environment, one can predict a vastly enhanced role for propaganda and public relations, a decline in the disdain with which many hold such practitioners, and a realization that the military commander becomes ever more dependent on the weaponry of an electronic world—a world in which one side's disinformation is another's information; one side's “flack” another's public relations officer.
[See also Enemy, Views of the; Film, War and the Military in: Newsfilms and Documentaries; Film, War and the Military in: Feature Films; News Media, War, and the Military; Public Opinion, War, and the Military; Psychological Warfare.]


Edward L. Bernays , Crystalizing Public Opinion, 1923.
Philip Davidson , Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763–1783, 1941; repr. 1973.
Allan M. Winkler , The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945, 1977.
Stephen Vaughn , Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism and the Committee on Public Information, 1980.
Terence H. Qualter , Opinion Control in the Democracies, 1985.
Michael Schudson , Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, 1986.
Bill Backer , The Care and Feeding of Ideas, 1993.
Jacqueline Sharkey , Under Fire: U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf, 1993.
Stuart Ewen , PR!: A Social History of Spin, 1997.
Philip M. Taylor , Global Communications, International Affairs and the Media Since 1945, 1997.

David Culbert