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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Public Relations and Propaganda

PR is often charged with accusations of being propagandistic communication and media manipulation. It is very interesting issue, as by examining the literature of PR we can find out that even among theorists and academics of PR there is a considerable dispute on the problem of a genuine nature of PR.

Historically the ‘public relations’ and ‘propaganda’ were interchangeable terms and there was no difference in meaning. The concept of these phenomena was a mere response to the popular opinion makers (Gustave Le Bon, Walter Lipmann, Harold Laswell, Edward Bernays) and psychological discourses of that time, that the masses of people in a system of democracy are not able to think and act rationally and need to be guided by elites, as Edward Bernays wrote in Propaganda (1928), in the first chapter titled: Organising Chaos:

Edward Bernays - the father of PR
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

The attitude towards the word ‘propaganda’ had changed after the II World War when it got negative associations due to its use by hated regimes and consequently the term was permanently changed to ‘public relations’.

Many PR academics point out that actually many definitions of propaganda could cover definitions of public relations: “many basic definitions of propaganda could be equally well used to describe public relations.” (J. L’Etang, 2009).

Morris and Goldsworthy (2008) ask what if there was nothing what could differentiate PR from propaganda and they respond: “Our contention is that there are no real moral distinctions: both practices are essentially amoral, capable of serving any cause.” Authors however propone three ways of differencing PR from propaganda, although their nature is more connected to the context in which they operate (democracy vs. regime) and to the potentially available techniques, than to the moral capital:
1.  It [public relations] has far few levers of influence to pull on.
2.  It exists in conditions where many competing persuasive message are communicated.
3.  The public relations practitioner, unlike the propagandist, does not have effective powers of censorship or any lasting control over the media.
To get the bigger picture on how the discipline of public relations was born I recommend watching the documentary Century of the Self:

1.     Fawkes, J., Public relations, propaganda and the psychology of persuasion. in: Tench, R., Yeomans, L., (2006). Exploring Public Relations. Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

2.     L’Etang, J.,(2009). Public Relations: concepts, practice and critique. Sage Publications.

3.     L'Etang, J., Pieczka, M., (1996). Critical perspectives in Public Relations. International Thomson Business Press.

4.     Moloney, K., (2000). Rethinking Public Relations: The Spin and the Substance. London and New York: Routledge.

5.     Morris, T., Goldsworthy, S., (2008). PR - a persuasive industry? Spin, public relations, and the shaping of the modern media. Palgrave McMillan.

6.     Theaker, A., (2008). The Public Relations Handbook. 3nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

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