PR People Don’t Just Lie, We’re Unethical Propagandists As Well

Public relations is nothing more than propaganda, or so a different discussion posited At first I couldn’t believe this was a serious discussion, and responded with:

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.

With all this reassuring discussion about lying having no place in the PR profession, I have been routinely stunned and disappointed over the past several days by a parallel discussion on whether public relations was the same as propaganda. I was amazed to find the number of PR colleagues who considered the two to be merely two different words for the same function. Two posts in particular really had the steam blowing out of my ears today, and are posted below – with a nod to Dr. Suess, I will obscure their names to protect the misinformed:

Thing One • Hello Colleages –

PR is definitely propoganda in this sense: it seeks to spin views of your organization in the best possible light, rather than take a more objective and distanced approach.

Did you know that Edward Bernays, often called the “Father of PR”, worked on “combining the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Dr. Sigmund Freud, Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the subconscious.” (WIkipedia:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays)

Come on. I read through the thread of people claiming they work no propaganda in PR. Have you never considered the difference between true and objective journalism and the promotional aspects of many press releases?

All of communication is an attempt to persuade. In this sense, even objective journalism is skewed by editorial choices, and cultural bias… but it is at one spectrum of the scale with outright harmful propaganda on the other end (lies). PR then, falls somewhere in between, and in the end its intention goes to the integrity of the practitioner.

Wikipedia article continues: “As a Jew who had witnessed the critical role that propaganda and mass media had played in creating anti-German sentiment in Britain prior to WWI and again during and after the Nazis’ quasi-democratic rise to power in Europe, Bernays felt that the same unleashing of irrational animosity could happen in any democratic society.”

I submit that PR/Promotion/Propaganda all are working to the same ends today.

OK, first of all, if you’re going to lecture a bunch of PR people on our profession, make sure you can spell and write correctly. Secondly, Wikipedia is not a reliable source unless you check just where whoever wrote the entry got their information. Thirdly, if you’re going to quote Edward Bernays, make sure you don’t quote out of context.

Thing 2 I think Thing One’s observations are spot-on. Once a PR activity moves from informing to persuading, propoganda is the likely result. Propoganda does not have to be negative, however.

On the other hand, Scott’s citing of Bernays observations should set off alarms in a country where many localities have taken to demonizing “illegal aliens”.

Really? Propaganda isn’t a negative term? By this time, the smoke arising from my keyboard was so visible, my husband walked in to the office, and immediately backed up in self-defense. I was blasting out my response to this bit of inanity.

Debra Bethard-Caplick, MBA, APR • Thing One and Thing Two, you are ignoring the fact that the term propaganda is now used “disparagingly to connote deception or distortion.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). In the same entry, it is also defined as spreading the Catholic Faith, which was it’s original meaning. So by that logic are you then asserting that public relations is a Catholic function? Farfetched, I admit. But you see my point [Unfortunately, this sailed completely over Thing One’s head).

Public relations does not claim the “objectivity” of journalists. If we did, you would have a point. As a profession, we advocate for our client or employer, just as an attorney would in a court of law. And like attorneys, part of our responsibilities which is never seen in public is to counsel our clients/employers on the impact of their actions. It is unfortunate that the misperception that PR is propaganda hinders our effectiveness and standing within organizations, and our ability to prevent the Tony Haywards and Bob Parsons of this world for creating damaging crises.

As long as you are quoting Edward Bernays in support of your assertion that PR is propaganda, let me supply this from my copy of “The Engineering of Consent,” 1st ed.:

“Evidences of the power of public opinion prove to every man the necessity of understanding the public, of adjusting to it, of informing it, of winning it over. The ability to do so is the test of leadership. Competition for the attention of the public has been continually broadened and intensified because the public decides whether an enterprise is to succeed or fail….The public relations counsel has been defined as an expert in ‘analyzing public relations maladjustments’; as ‘locating probable causes of such maladjustments in the social behavior of the client, and in the sentiments and opinions of publics’; and as ‘advising the client on suitable corrective measures'” (p. 5).

“There are three broad functions of public relations counsel: adjustment, information, and persuasion, and all three are the subjects of study by social scientists. Adjustment is a primary element in good public relations. It is now generally recognized that people, groups, and organizations need to adjust to one another if we are ever to have a smooth running society. A company that does not adjust its attitudes and actions to the public suffers the result of poor public relations” (p.7).

Nowhere in this description of public relations do I see advocating deceiving or damaging the public. You can’t get much more brutally honest than to tell a company that they have to adjust to the wishes/opinions/demands of the public. Somehow that aspect always gets overlooked when people are disparaging the PR profession.

And finally, from Edward Bernays himself, in describing two opposing sides of a public policy issue:

“The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda” (p. 212, Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923).

One of the things we do as public relations professionals is to advise on message development, so that the words chosen convey the meaning meant. Based on the original question, it’s pretty obvious how many of us define the term “propaganda” and it is not something we accept as ethical public relations. The only “alarm bells” I see are from those who selectively define PR to fit their perspectives. So no, I do not accept your premise that “PR/promotion/propaganda are working to the same ends today.” In fact, as one who has walked away from two different positions because employers wanted me to engage in unethical behavior, I find it just a tad bit offensive. You are disparaging my personal and professional integrity.

I attempted with this response to point the fallacy of condemning an entire profession for the misuse/mislabeling of its tools/techniques. Would you then brand the profession of medicine because medical techniques are used in prisoner executions? Granted, it’s an extreme example, but you see my point. You can call a shovel a spade, a digging tool, a garden implement, or whatever name you wish to give it, but its essential function is not the issue – it’s the purpose to which it is put that is the issue. Propaganda is not the same as public relations, and calling it so isn’t going work. There’s enough ethical professionals who will call you out for it.

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