For a Better Propaganda Machine, Look Beyond Government

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Credit: Hannah Barczyk

If the U.S. government can't prevent the Chinese from hacking into the personal records of federal workers, why do we think that the government would be any more competent in countering ISIS propaganda?

In an interview conducted by Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker, retired General Michael Hayden talked about why we're losing the cyberespionage war. General Hayden is the only person to
have served as director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, and he is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, a global security and risk management advisory firm.
General Hayden said the hacking of thousands of government personnel records was not "shame on China. This is shame on us for not protecting that kind of information."

He said "raw incompetence" at the executive-branch level contributed to the breach.

Strong words.

And we don't seem any more adept at persuading nonbelievers and skeptics about the virtues of our way of life. In fact, we seem to be hung up on getting the procedures right instead of making sure the message resonates.

When Charlotte Beers, the former CEO at Ogilvy & Mather, assessed her job as Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, she contended that her success should not be judged on how well the U.S. was perceived abroad, but how well the State Department was doing at simply reaching the target audience.

And the message continues to play second fiddle. A New York Times story last month portrayed a "fractured coalition" of the U.S. and its foreign allies "that cannot get its own message straight."

An internal State Department assessment concludes that the Islamic State's violent narrative "has effectively trumped the efforts of some of the world's richest and most technologically advanced nations."

The State Department report was written by the current occupant of the job Charlotte Beers once held, Richard A. Stengel, the former managing editor of Time magazine. The document was written for Secretary of State John Kerry after a conference of Western and Arab officials in Paris, the Times said.
Ad Age talked to Mr. Stengel earlier this year, and he acknowledged that "the ultimate battle is not on the military battlefield, it's in the information space."

Based on the Times story, it appears not much progress has been made since then. The United Arab Emirates is "reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing," the memo says. "When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time."

The problem is getting focused on a unified message to counter the Islamic State's singular narrative of violence and discipline to achieve the grandiose endgame of an Arab caliphate. The emphasis, in hundreds of social-media messages every day, is on the means justifying the end, with the end a far-distant goal. Recruits seem to respond to the immediate gratification of unmitigated violence.
If our government and its allies are having a hard time not only forging an effective message but also identifying how best to come up with one, isn't it time for outside forces to take over the propaganda game?

Come to think of it, we haven't come up with an outstanding propaganda effort since World War II, and that was partly because our enemies then were so sharply and unequivocally defined. But another big reason was because messages back then were turned out by a publicly owned but government-funded Writer's War Board.

The organization utilized thousands of writers nationwide to develop and place propaganda in all media, according to The Historian, a journal that published an article on the Writer's War Board by Thomas Howell, who is a professor of history at Louisiana College.

The board itself was a self-recruited group of about 20 authors from the New York City area, mainly involved with popular or commercial writing. The chairman, Rex Stout, wrote best-sellers about fictional detective Nero Wolfe. Other well-known members included Clifton Fadiman, an editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club and host of the highly rated radio show "Information, Please"; Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II; journalist William Shirer; novelist Pearl S. Buck; and radio commentator Elmer Davis.

The WWB produced its own publications sent to more than 4,000 writers across the country on how they could approach a given subject with pertinent facts. It also promoted the production of radio shows and placed articles by well-known writers in national magazines, and sometimes even inserted "pro-Allied" themes in popular comic books of the day. Mr. Howell in his report said the activities of the WWB were so extensive that it's been called "the greatest propaganda machine in history."

That's what we need today. With a few changes, of course. The media might be a little reluctant to embed propaganda in its news or feature articles nowadays, but what's wrong with using a new category of custom or the new medium of native advertising to accomplish the same goals? And most efforts would be in the digital domain where social media could embody the full range of emotion and persuasion.

Lastly, I'd like to see the new entity staffed by advertising people, who are so adept at narrowing arguments down to their basic elements.

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