Public Relations‘ perpetual problem: It’s Monday morning after a long weekend, I’m trying to chase away the grouchy mood with copious amounts of coffee and the silliness has already started. Waiting in my inbox was a LinkedIn discussion on whether public relations is a form of propaganda or two different concepts. My response follows:
Oh, here we go again! Discussing the difference between propaganda and PR is like discussing the difference between a doctor and a stethoscope. Propaganda, publicity, media relations, speechwriting, public relations strategy – all are tools used by those in the varying segments of the public relations PROFESSION. If you’re going to have a meaningful discussion, at least make sure you have the elements of the discussion correctly defined.
Cutlip, Center and Broom (Prentice-Hall), the seminal textbook of the profession, offers clear definitions of many of the tools used in public relations, of which propaganda is but one:
- Publicity – information from an outside source that is used by the media because the information has news value (p.10).
- Advertising – information placed in the media by an identified sponsor that pays for the time or space (p.11).
- Advertorial – paid placement of opinion articles/editorials speaking out to readers on an issue or topic (p.11)
- Marketing – a line management function that engaged in turning an organizations inputs into outputs of value to others (p.8)
- Public relations – a staff function providing counsel and other functions to support line functions (p.8)
- Press agentry – creating newsworthy stories and events to attract media attention and to gain public notice (p.14; these days known as “PR stunts”)
- Public affairs – a specialized part of public relations that builds and maintains governmental and local community relations in order to influence public policy.
- Issues management – the proactive process of anticipating, identifying, evaluating, and responding to public policy issues that affect organizations’ relationships with their publics (p.17)
- Lobbying – a specialized part of public relations that builds and maintains relations with government primarily for the purpose of influencing legislation and regulation (p.19)
Propaganda is so far off the radar there isn’t even a definition of it in the text book. I had to turn to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary for a definition:
- The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
- Ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect
The use of propaganda as defined by Merriam-Webster is directly opposed by the Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics as detailed with the examples here:
DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION
Core Principle Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.
To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.
A member shall:
Be honest and accurate in all communications.
Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
Avoid deceptive practices.
Examples of Improper Conduct Under this Provision:
Front groups: A member implements “grass roots” campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.
Lying by omission: A practitioner for a corporation knowingly fails to release financial information, giving a misleading impression of the corporation’s performance.
A member discovers inaccurate information disseminated via a website or media kit and does not correct the information.
A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in “grass roots” campaigns.
I’ve felt for a long time that the public relations profession needs to implement a public relations campaign for itself, to educate business professionals on the profession’s scope and capabilities. This latest “discussion” just adds fuel to the fire. For too long we in the profession have sat by and let journalists and the public transform “PR” into a catch-all pejorative, even as they take full advantage of the benefit of our hard work.
To begin, we need to define the problem. How have we gotten to this point? Anyone willing to start?