Silence meant security: Overcoming WWII Propaganda

ll01.jpgA few weeks back, I was the guest of honor at a dinner that could only be described as “surreal”. Gathered around the table were 10 members of the Intelligence Community, representing organizations like CIA, NSA, NGA, State, TSA and others.

One of our conversations was the parallels and connections between the cultures of today’s business and intelligence communities. In most corporations, secrecy, or perhaps the fear of publication seems to set the tone of the way most people inside a company approach the way they do their jobs.

If you look back to the 1930s (and certainly earlier), you will see most businesses taking a much more open approach. Most businesses didn’t fight against, but instead tried to work with their customers. From the general store in the west to the soda fountain downtown, business recognized and respected their customers. Word of Mouth ruled the day.

Then along comes World War II.

As the propaganda stated (and was repeated): “Silence means security“. Basically if you share anything having to do with anything involving the war effort, you’re putting your friends, family, and fellow citizens at risk.

After the war ended, the “Greatest Generation” was entering the workforce in droves. American post-war excitement and relative prosperity was driving an explosion of private industry. With little time to reflect on the ideas we’d formed about the transition from war culture to post-war culture, the “Silence means security” mantra was embraced beyond the war. Secrecy was unwittingly embraced as a keystone mantra of the new business culture.

The Baby Boomer generation was raised with this new reality, not realizing it wasn’t just Standard Operating Procedure. So it’s no surprise that we’re having to overcome a culture of secrecy, and it’s no surprise that the Social Web is coming to light at a time when the Boomers are beginning to retire and turn the reigns over to Gen X (and Gen Y too, for that matter).

If you’re finding this hard to swallow, check out this excerpt from the original Loose Lip flier:

SILENCE MEANS SECURITY — If violation of protective measures is serious within written communications it is disastrous in conversations. Protect your conversation as you do your letters, and be even more careful. A harmful letter can be nullified by censorship; loose talk is direct delivery to the enemy.

If you come home during war your lips must remain sealed and your written hand must be guided by self-imposed censorship. This takes guts. Have you got them or do you want your buddies and your country to pay the price for your showing off. You’ve faced the battle front; its little enough to ask you to face this “home front.”

It gets even better. Look at the top 10 “prohibited subjects” from this document (emphasis mine):

  1. Don’t write military information of Army units — their location, strength,, materiel, or equipment.
  2. Don’t write of military installations.
  3. Don’t write of transportation facilities.
  4. Don’t write of convoys, their routes, ports (including ports of embarkation and disembarkation), time en route, naval protection, or war incidents occurring en route.
  5. Don’t disclose movements of ships, naval or merchant, troops, or aircraft.
  6. Don’t mention plans and forecasts or orders for future operations, whether known or just your guess.
  7. Don’t write about the effect of enemy operations.
  8. Don’t tell of any casualty until released by proper authority (The Adjutant General) and then only by using the full name of the casualty.
  9. Don’t attempt to formulate or use a code system, cipher, or shorthand, or any other means to conceal the true meaning of your letter. Violations of this regulation will result in severe punishment.
  10. Don’t give your location in any way except as authorized by proper authority. Be sure nothing you write about discloses a more specific location than the one authorized.

Sounds awfully familiar to Jeremiah’s “The 3 Impossible Conversations for Corporations“, doesn’t it?

Today, three generations later, we’re finally realizing that in business “Loose lips keep ships floating“, and that a return to traditional Word of Mouth marketing is a powerful force.


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