PR people and students of the craft should flock (no, make it run) to the New York Public Library's "Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind" exhibit, which opens July 28.
Woodrow Wilson's Administration planted the seeds of modern PR during that time as it conjured up propaganda strategies and suppressed media and war opponents in order to persuade reluctant Americans to support intervention into "The Great War."
Most people viewed the war as just the latest round in the never-ending cycle of conflicts and hatred among ancient European powers. The large German-American population of the time vehemently opposed fighting their ancestral home, while others found it hard to justify the potential loss of American lives and treasure in retaliation of the assassination of an obscure archduke of Austria-Hungry.
To neutralize opposition, Team Wilson went all out, creating the infamous Committee on Public Information (Creel Committee) and notorious Espionage Act of 1917.
Eddie Bernays, the "father of PR," cut his professional teeth at Creel, which unveiled then sophisticated propaganda tools (e.g., "Four Minute Men" volunteers who talked up the merits of intervention at public events), planted phony stories about well-prepared US troops, produced full-length films ("Answering the Hun"), designed gung-ho posters and staged events to win the hearts and minds of Americans.
George Creel, who called his memoirs, "How We Advertised America," truly was the "father of spin."
In lobbying for the Act, Wilson noted that people "born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws" have "poured the poisons of disloyalty into the arteries of our national life."
Under the Act, anti-war activists were arrested -- 1912 Socialist candidate for President Eugene Debs was arrested and sentenced to 10 years for giving a speech that "obstructed recruiting -- movies seized and citizens deported. The much amended Act thrives today and is used against Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden.
Michael Inman, curator of the NYPL WWI exhibit, promises feature propaganda posters, movie excerpts ("The Sinking of the Lusitania"), preparedness literature ("Defenseless America"), recordings of speeches and sheet music (George M. Cohan's "Over There").
He noted that many of the issues of the WWI era, such as free speech/press, role of immigrants in US society, domestic espionage) resonate loudly today. He got that right.
See you at the library.