Tag Archives: munich crisis

War of the Worlds PR crisis

An old PR crisis has caught my attention and this case illustrates just how powerful credible information sources can be.  Also it brings into question …was this a PR stunt or was this a crisis that coincidentally did good things for some??

The media love a story that will sell and the masses can be irrational thinkers who can believe everything they read and forget to question what is before them. A great example of how audiences can easily be influenced dates back to October 30th   1938. The Mercury Theatre on Air (Orson Welles Producer) broadcast over station WABC and Columbia Broadcasting System’s coast to coast, a play based on the H.G.WellsWar of the Worlds’ causing mass hysteria. Audiences missed vital information at the start of the show, perhaps forgot or didn’t realise this station regularly produced radio plays and there were various other elements affecting the behaviours of its sensitive listeners. The National Geographic says in 1938, with the world on the brink of World War II, audiences were already on razor’s edge. The format used in War of the Worlds, with its shrill news bulletins and breathless commentary, echoed the way in which radio had covered the “Munich crisis”—a meeting of European powers that became the prelude to World War II—a month before.  “Welles and his company managed to closely duplicate the style and the feel of those broadcasts in their own program,” said Elizabeth McLeod, a journalist and broadcast historian in Rockland, Maine, who specializes in 1930s radio. “Some [listeners] heard only that ‘shells were falling’ and assumed they were coming from Hitler.”

According to the New York Times a dramatization of H. G. Wells’ fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids.

According to historian Jennifer Rosenberg the power of radio had fooled the listeners. They had become accustomed to believing everything they heard on the radio, without questioning it. Now they had learned – the hard way.

This hoax caused mass disruption to various services, businesses and lives whilst at the same time propelling the broadcast and Orson Welles into the world of fame. National Geographic says, historians say the hoax worked because the broadcast authentically simulated how radio worked in an emergency.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an unsponsored cultural program and research suggests that it was looking to increase its audience. The program ran at the same time as a very popular show called Chase and Sanborn hour and it was in the breaks people tuned into the play and heard the disturbing and true sounding news bulletins with realistic sound effects.

According to the New York Times, Welles expressed profound regret that his dramatic efforts could cause consternation. “I don’t think we will choose anything like this again,” he said. He hesitated about presenting it, Welles said, because “it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable.”

Information about this story on Wikipedia says that within one month, newspapers had published 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who “calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened'”. NBC’s audience, by contrast, was an estimated 30 million.[11]

An article on awesome stories.com where you can also listen to the archived broadcast says the following day after the event Welles held a press conference during which he insisted his broadcast was just a holiday prank. Twenty years later, however, he admitted to additional motives.  Welles, and his colleagues, were convinced that people would believe whatever they heard from “the box.”

The War of the Worlds broadcast – specifically reworked from the original story to impact Americans – effectively demonstrated the power of radio to manipulate a mass audience in a time of political crisis (awesome stories.com).  Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Richard J. Hand writes, as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”(Wikipedia) In a prescient column, in the New York Tribune, Dorothy Thompson foresaw that the broadcast revealed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create theatrical illusions, to manipulate the public (Transparency.com).

The notoriety of the broadcast led the Campbell Soup Company to sponsor the show; The Mercury Theatre on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse (Wikipedia).


It’s amazing how an action has so many varied angles, understandings and responses. Was this play promoted enough? Seeing as it was going to be so real, should it have been under serious consideration? It was different to previous plays and therefore the promotional efforts perhaps should have been much more. However imagine if it had been promoted so well that no one reacted?

In addition I learnt an element about what feeds media since papers really picked up on this. Back then it was more of a newspaper vs. radio scenario so this presented opportunities for them and they continued the stories for a few weeks.

The National Geographic states historians also claim that newspaper accounts over the following week greatly exaggerated the hysteria. There are estimates that about 20 percent of those listening believed it was real. That translates to less than a million people.

At the time, newspapers considered radio an upstart rival. Some in the print press, resentful of the superior radio coverage during the Munich crisis, may have sought to prove a point about the irresponsibility of the radio broadcast.

“The exaggeration of the War of the Worlds story can be interpreted as the print media’s revenge for being badly scooped during the previous month,” McLeod said

It’s important to be aware of environments and the potential effects on various publics.

On one hand it looks as though it was deliberate seeing as there was a huge amount of publicity and generated worldwide attention. On the other perhaps the producers really didn’t think about the consequences…still what a break-through for radio back then…to pull off a play and create an illusion to hundreds and thousands of people is pretty impressive. Also frightening to think that’s how audiences can work, obviously today we have access to much more information and can be more prepared. Now though I think there is other creative ways such as using phrases like ‘war on terror’ that hold powers to influence audience behaviours, playing on emotions through a different mean. Could this happen again? Do people know better?

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