America dons khaki
When the the Unites States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the Allied Powers had been fighting since 1914. America mobilised over 4 000 000 military personnel and the infusion of American manpower and materiel into Europe changed the course of the war.
Close on 2 000 000 Americans served in France and by November 1918 nearly 10 000 soldiers or doughboys were arriving in France every day. By the end of the War America had suffered 110 000 deaths – almost twice as many as the number of Australians who died in that brutal conflict.
Before the country entered the War US President Woodrow Wilson had pursued a policy of neutrality and American public opinion had been split on whether to become involved and in some cases who to support. Once war was declared the nation quickly mobilised and Wilson recognised the need to galvanise popular support for the war effort. He appointed Creel, a newspaper editor from the West as Chairman of the Committee for Public Information.
The Second Line
Creel – who by his own admission could be a difficult character – set about gaining domestic and international support by supplying a never-ending stream of war-related information to the public and to overseas audiences including those in Germany.
He recruited ‘The Second Line’, a veritable army of communications specialists to help Americans understand why the country had taken up arms and to bring them news from the front line and home front. Creel was quick to enlist numerous organisations and individuals – most of whom worked for free – to carry the message of war to America.
The Committee which was based in Washington DC operated for only 28 months but by the time it disbanded in June 1919 it had used every available medium to secure support both at home and abroad. Many of its strategies are the foundations for today’s public relations and content marketing.
For example Creel’s Four Minute Men was a force of 75 000 volunteers who went into communities across the country to speak about America’s participation in the War – often speaking from notes provided by Washington. By war’s end they had delivered 750 000 speeches in 5 200 villages, towns and cities. Many early talks were in theatres where volunteers would address movie goers during the four minute interval it took to change film reels.
The Committee drew on the patriotism of America’s advertising industry, artists and movie makers. It brokered millions of dollars of free advertising for the war effort in the press and on trolley cars and outdoor signage. Prominent American artists volunteered to produce posters, window dressings and other images, eventually publishing 1400 drawings many of which are now iconic. And Hollywood’s movie makers willingly made feature films that captured the spirit of America’s resolve.
A Government-run newspaper was set up to relay war news from the Armed Forces and government agencies. With a daily circulation of 100 000 copies it was high on the reading list of politicians, diplomats , industry and the media. Creel’s bureau of information was an analogue forerunner to today’s online portal. Conceived as a single point of entry into government it helped people seeking information on volunteer war work or who were approaching the administration on business. In ten months the bureau fielded 86 000 specific requests.
As a newspaper man Creel understood deadlines and the currency of content. He recruited novelists, academics and others to write articles on wartime topics which were distributed by a news bureau to newspapers and magazines throughout the US, many of which published these texts in their entirety. He also established a foreign news service that relayed stories and photographs to capitals in Europe and Asia.
By the force of personality and backed by the President and top US General Black Jack Pershing, Creel overcame the resistance of admirals and generals to sponsor media visits to State-side military bases and the American trenches in France. The Permit System allowed civilian photographers and journalists access to Army and Navy installations and war production plants. Eventually the Committee was reviewing an average of 700 photos a day for security purposes before wiring them to US and foreign media or channeling them into the Committee’s own propaganda efforts.
Even by today’s standards Creel’s efforts are extraordinary. He managed what was to that time the biggest public relations effort in history. The pace at which his Committee worked, the volumes of material it produced, the range stakeholders it recruited and its use of emerging technologies would be very significant achievements in 2015 – and all achieved in just over two years.
There was no happy ending for George Creel. He antagonized major newspaper barons because his duties also involved censorship and he endured a fractured relationship with Congress which withdrew funding from his Committee as soon as the war ended.
Creel went on to minor newspaper roles and in 1934 ran unsuccessfully for Governor of California. In 1920 he published How We Advertised America which is available on Amazon.
George Creel died in 1953 aged 77 years.