PR & Propaganda – The Origins

”Public relations is the management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the various publics whom its success or failure depends” (Cutlip et al, 1985).

Above is just one of the many definitions of public relations. Today, practitioners, academic lecturers and students struggle to agree on one phrase which defines the subject as a whole. As a consequence it can be hard to understand the main function of public relations – some think it’s a form of marketing, others think it’s media.

…just in case you were wondering!

In all honesty, I was one of those students who signed up for PR having no idea what it was… it wasn’t until my second year that I began to understand its crucial role within an organisation. Just look at politics for example, PR and advertising expenditure under the new Labour government’s welfare policies rose from £69.4 million in 1996/7 to £105 million in 1998/9. The government has also been known to use television shows for PR purposes. Advice for illiterate adults has been inserted into popular BBC soap dramas such as EastEnders (Moloney, 2000) . Ironic, considering the BBC is supposed to be ‘fair and unbiased’ – how can it be when it is promoting government schemes? The website British Propaganda Corporation highlights just some of these issues.

Studying journalism I often come across the word ‘propaganda‘ or ‘spin‘- yet it was never something I associated with PR until fairly recently, I guess I always looked at it from a journalistic point of view. Journalists receive the ‘hyped-up’ press releases and don’t bother to check the facts or conduct their own research. They then spread that bias information nationally, and in today’s internet savvy world it can travel rapidly to numerous countries around the globe. Surely they are as much to blame as the PR practitioners, right?

Yet whether we like it or not (and a majority won’t!), propaganda is at the very heart of how PR was first established. There is no definite date as to its introduction, many estimate it around 1880-1920. American journalist Ivy Lee is often noted as one of the founders along with  Sigmund Freud’s nephew-in-law Edward Bernays. Both were famous for scandalous PR stunts which challenged traditional societal values. In 1928, president of American tobacco company, George Hill hired Bernays to increase sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes. At the time equal rights for women was still a very raw subject. Bernays took advantage of this by creating a campaign which emphasised that smoking (a very male dominated past time) was a very chic and liberating activity for women to do. Although it didn’t completely demolish the taboo, the campaign had a lasting effect on women and cigarettes – an effect quite opposite to that of recent smoking campaigns.

So, what exactly is propaganda then?

”The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Jowett and O’Donnell, 1999).

In Bernays 1928 book Propaganda, he noted that public relations used propaganda because it was ”well-suited to setting before the people new, emerging concepts offered by wide sets of minority viewpoints within society” (St.John and Lamme, 2011). From both of these definitions we can assume that propaganda is mainly used to manipulate peoples’ perceptions about an organisation, a person or a new ideology. Many would argue this is what public relations does – to some extent I would agree too. Yet, propaganda can easily be miss-used to which it can cause disastrous consequences. Just look at Hitler and the Nazi regime for example.

It’s also argued that propaganda has taken on negative totalitarian connotations. Let’s face it, if you ask anybody what it means, they are likely to describe it in an unfavourable light – I did as well until I began to read in-depth about its origins. But is it only due to its associations with fascists and communists that it is perceived as such?

Bernays (1928) noted that ”propaganda becomes vicious and repressive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good”. Yet Moore (1996) assumes that any form of propaganda is bad PR, he writes that PR becomes propaganda when it is ”imperative in tone, offers no alternative facts or views and is formulaic” and that it plays on emotion. There is even an ‘strategic and creative’ agency called Propaganda – they obviously don’t look at it negatively.

Maybe the question isn’t whether PR and propaganda are the same discipline, but more importantly – when do these practices turn bad and how can we prevent them from doing so?

For the next few weeks I will be looking in depth at the relationship between public relations and propaganda and the ethical issues involved. I would love for you to share your thoughts and opinions on such a challenging subject.

Has PR evolved and moved on from propaganda or is it just defined in a more ethical light? What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “PR & Propaganda – The Origins

  1. I agree – there is definitely a stigma attached to the word propaganda, the first time I heard it was in a history class talking about the viscous (and mostly untrue) posters that would be published to give the Germans a bad image. Do you think that the PR industry will ever get rid of this stigma? After all, changing peoples views and reputation management what the PR industry does best.

  2. For me personally, I don’t think it will ever lose the stigma. I think it’s rooted deep because of its origins. It doesn’t help when people like Max Clifford are given the title of PR guru by the media. He has even said that he doesn’t consider himself to be a PR practitioner but rather a publicist. I think a lot of the blame lies with the media and their portrayal of us.

  3. I agree that PR and Propaganda have similarities, in terms of creating an image, persuasion and influencing people. Propaganda I would say is used by the media more than PR, whereby they portray their own image of the news upon the people, and uses language to do so. Whereas PR creates a spin as you mention, placing a positive on a negative to protect a company’s brand, or to portray things in a better light. If asked personally, where would you place PR in terms of its place in either marketing or journalism?

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