*** Long post alert!
For PR students, and particularly those studying the CIPR Diploma, I thought it might be useful to share my answers for the Critical Reasoning Test paper that I completed in September 2007.
Overall I received a “merit” across both papers. The answer shown below received a “pass” mark.
The question for this paper was:
Why do you think some people accuse PR of being the same as propaganda? What arguments would you present against that point of view?
My essay text is below:
The accusation that the discipline of public relations is the same as propaganda is a frequently levelled charge. In contemporary society the overwhelmingly negative connotations that the term propaganda carries imply a strength of criticism for public relations itself when the two are considered the same.
In considering the merits of the assertion that public relations is the same as propaganda, it is first worth seeking a definition of propaganda. While since the late twentieth century the term has carried negative values, this has not always been the case. The early theorists such as Bernays and Laswell viewed the practice of propaganda as a legitimate practice and as such the term carried fairly neutral overtones (L’Etang, 1998):
“Propaganda is the consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” (Bernays, 1928)
“Propaganda is the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, so to speak, more concretely and less accurately by stories, rumours, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication. There is a need for a word which means the making of a deliberately one-sided statements to a mass audience. Let us choose ‘propaganda’ as such a word.” (Laswell, 1934)
Many public relations practitioners today will recognise their own activities in the context of these two definitions, although they may baulk at the negative overtones of calling their work propaganda. This view is also articulated by Grunig and Hunt (1984) who argue that propaganda forms a part of publicity where “practitioners spread the faith of the organisation involved” although the Grunig and Hunt also observe that this practice often takes place “through incomplete, distorted, or half-true information”.
It is useful at this point to look at the assertion that public relations is the same as propaganda in the context of the four models of public relations proposed by Grunig and Hunt (1984):
Their first model, press agentry or publicity, is described as being for the sole purpose of propaganda. It implies little respect for truth or accuracy in its communications and is one-way in direction with all communication flowing from practitioner to public.
Jowett and O’Donnell’s definition of propaganda is consistent with Grunig and Hunt’s model (1992) as it emphasises the imbalance of interests that they assert is inherent in propaganda: they define propaganda as being a “deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”
Some of the highest profile public relations practitioners, as perceived by those outside the profession, probably belong to this group. Max Clifford is often quoted as a leading contemporary publicist in this context. Similarly political practitioners such as Alastair Campbell and entertainment practitioners like Mark Borkowski also meet Grunig and Hunt’s criteria for the publicity model, in which propaganda is inherent.
Davis (2004) notes that in the UK the use of propaganda is concentrated in politics, and cites the creation of a dossier of intelligence by the UK government to support the as an example of how propaganda was used. The history of the dossier is explained well by the BBC (2003). A key influencer of the content of the report was Alastair Campbell, a leading propagandist in the government of the day. A key supporting claim in the report was later withdrawn and the dossier later discredited. The synonymous nature of propaganda, “spin” and public relations in this instance gave weight to the argument that public relations is propaganda, particularly given the lack of focus on accuracy of content in this instance.
It would appear easier to argue that public relations is the same as propaganda when one considers a number of relatively niche, albeit high profile, parts of public relations, in particular those that aim to influence public opinion in politics and economics.
However while publicity does share a number of characteristics with propaganda, Davis (2004) argues that it is not the same. He identifies that characteristics of propaganda like “belligerence, dogmatism and demand of unquestioning agreement and obedience” do not apply to publicity. By implication this suggests that some propaganda is the same as the publicity model of public relations, and some is not.
It is reasonable to assume that in this way there exists a continuum between propaganda and publicity. At some point on that continuum activities cease being public relations (in the form of publicity) and become pure propaganda. However under most definitions of public relations, the practice of publicity as defined in Grunig and Hunt’s model could be considered a fringe public relations activity when at the propaganda end of the continuum.
Grunig and Hunt’s second and most closely related model of public relations is called public information. It shares its one-way nature with the publicity model, but is clearly distinguished by the focus on accuracy of messages being communicated. Truthful and accurate information is a central part of public information. This model has been identified as being the most widely used in contemporary public relations (Harrison, 1999).
The role of truthfulness in the public information model raises the question of how truthfulness can be gauged. While a practitioner should be aware of the truthfulness of the communications they produce, how truthful these communications are perceived as being is entirely different. Cutlip et al (2000) identify expertise, sincerity and charisma as being three key factors in public relations persuasion.
If the primary differentiator between Grunig and Hunt’s publicity and public information is truthfulness, and when considered from the recipient’s point of view this can only be gauged through personal value filters such as those highlighted by Cutlip et al, then this could cause public information to be perceived as publicity or propaganda, even if the message originator believes the information to be accurate.
The subjectivity of the judgement of truthfulness by the receiver is key here in determining whether public relations is the same as propaganda or not. However given this judgement is made by individual receivers, it would seem difficult to judge at an aggregated audience level whether the balance of perception of truthfulness leads to a public relations practice being perceived as propaganda or not.
So considering Grunig and Hunt’s first two models of public relations, it is clear that propaganda is integral to the practice of publicity and may well be present in the practice of public information, depending on the perception of truthfulness from the receiver’s point of view. However taken together, these two models and their similarity to propaganda do not mean that public relations itself is propaganda.
The arguments to support the view that public relations is not the same as propaganda are closely linked to Grunig and Hunt’s alternative models of public relations: two way asymmetric and two way symmetric.
These models have in common the concept of a communications loop – where information flows both way between the sender and receiver, compared to the publicity and public information models of public relations where information only flows from sender to receive
r. A key distinction between the asymmetric and symmetric models is that in the asymmetric model there is an imbalance in the information flow – more information is flowing from the sender to the receiver than vice versa. In the symmetric model the information flow is more balanced between the two parties, leading to relatively equitable levels of power in the transactions.
In the asymmetric and symmetric two-way models of public relations Grunig and Grunig (1992) identify a concept of excellent public relations, suggesting they represent the professional field of public relations. They contrast this with publicity and public information, which they characterise as craft public relations.
The existence of the communications loop, or more importantly its absence in publicity and public information, determines whether propaganda is present (Grunig and Hunt, 1984). The absence of the return path inherent in the communications loop allows public relations practitioners to be less truthful or straightforward in their communications than they could otherwise be with the presence of a return path.
However this relationship would appear to hold less true today than it did in 1984. The advent of widespread internet access and the emergence of social media tools has given a voice to individuals in a way they did not have previously, thereby potentially blurring the distinction between Grunig and Hunt’s excellence and craft public relations types.
Social media has allowed the creation of information return paths from receivers to senders in a way that could not have been envisaged in 1984. However for such a return path to be effective in a relationship, the original sender needs to be actively receptive to such messages – this is where Grunig and Hunt’s model continues to be valid.
I would therefore suggest that it is not solely the existence of a return path as part of a communications loop (and therefore integral to Grunig and Hunt’s concept of excellence) that differentiates propaganda from public relations, but also the willingness and capability of the sender in that context to listen to information flowing back through the return path. If the sender believes that they are participating in a one-way process, then the return path, while it may exist, will not achieve any relationship function as the information is not being received by the sender.
Given these conditions, it would be reasonable to assume that propaganda is the same as public relations if there is no communications loop or there is a communications loop but the sender does not actively seek or listen to the information that is being sent back. Alternatively if a communications loop does exist and both parties are sending and receiving information, one can assume that public relations is not the same as propaganda in this context. It could easily be argued that while not the same, the practices of public relations and propaganda are so closely entangled that there this to the untrained eye little difference between the two, and no realistic prospect of this relationship changing.
Moloney (2000) emphasises the relative importance and longevity of propaganda: “Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realise that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends to bring order out of chaos”.
Given the high profile, influential and enduring nature of propaganda activities in mainstream media, it is reasonable to assume that the perception of propaganda as being the same as public relations arises from the activities of practitioners operating in niches or at the fringe of the overall discipline, although their activities are over-represented in terms of visibility and perceived influence among non-practitioners.
It is also worth giving consideration to how propaganda is perceived in the public sphere. Propaganda when it is recognised is often perceived as being bad, when the same message that had not been recognised as propaganda may well have been perceived more positively. Propaganda is not inherently an unethical form of communication – it is a neutral tool, that can be put to both ethical and unethical purposes (Hamilton, 1986).
Jones (2007) suggests that all organisations maintain an element of propaganda in their communications, as they are selective in their communications: without exception they all choose to communicate the aspects of their business that they want their audiences to know about, and choose to not communicate the aspects they don’t. The conclusion from this approach would be that all public relations is propaganda, because the nature of public relations is to selectively disclose information in communications rather than non-selectively disclose information.
However this black and white approach oversimplifies the true situation. While truthfulness seems to be the main factor that distinguishes public relations from propaganda, it is necessary to consider broader ethical principles and how these relate to truthfulness in public relations.
In particular it is worth noting the role of consequentialist theories of ethics, their role in truthfulness and therefore their impact on whether public relations is the same as propaganda. The consequentialist approach to ethics in public relations suggests a focus on the outcome of a particular action – the practitioner must consider the effect that action has. In this context an ethical decision would be considered one that causes more benefit than good. However this approach to decision making will not always result in the truth being told – there will be situations where a practitioner judges it is the right course of action to not tell the truth or, more commonly, withhold some information from a public. If this is deemed untruthful then does the activity cease to be public relations and become pure propaganda, even when the practitioner has taken a carefully considered ethical decision?
If truthfulness alone is not the only determinant of whether public relations is the same as propaganda, then it is worth considering what other factors may differentiate the two. In his analysis of Bernays and Ellul’s different analyses on propaganda, Olsen (2005) notes that two consistent features of propaganda are a contempt for the individual who receives the propaganda and a underpinning belief that the masses (public) need guidance from the elite few.
The former feature would appear to indicate that a determinant of whether public relations is the same as propaganda would be the intentions of the practitioner – Olsen’s practitioner contempt would seem symptomatic of an approach to publics consistent with, but not necessarily the same as, a desire to deceive or be economical with the truth. From a theoretical point of view, this would seem consistent with the virtue ethics approach which considers an individual’s motivations for their actions, rather than their actions themselves. Implicit in Olsen’s analysis is that a propagandist will have different standards of virtue ethics compared to a public relations practitioner – the propagandist will have less respect for their publics and will be more comfortable with less accurate or truthful communications.
In summary, there is much evidence to support the view that public relations is not simply the same as propaganda. Propaganda, while it is often cast in a negative light when referred to, is not inherently a negative activity. While judgements about whether a specific activity is negative or positive are grounded in individual and societal customs and practices, propaganda can be used for purposes that could be considered positive or negative.
However while the activity of propaganda does form a small, but highly visible, part of public relations, it cannot be considered as the same as public relations comprises many more activities beyond the practice of propaganda. The analysis of Grunig and Hunt’s four models of public relations shows the range of other types of public relations that exist beyond propaganda.
An important factor in c
onsidering whether public relations is the same as propaganda is the role of truthfulness. It is clear that propaganda does not require truth at its core – many observers cited above have noted that the absence of a duty to be truthful characterises propaganda, and sits less well with public relations as a professional discipline, even though Grunig and Hunt suggest that propaganda is a form of public relations.
I would suggest that in reality most propaganda is part of public relations, although it is probably practised regularly by a small number of practitioners operating in discrete sectors. While most practitioners work using more than one of Grunig and Hunt’s models of public relations, propaganda is used relatively little by those who do not use it full-time. However those that argue that public relations is the same as propaganda are over-generalising about what public relations actually involves, although it is somewhat ironic that it is the profession’s inability to accurately and realistically communicate its own function that is behind this confusion outside the profession. [2605 words]
BBC (2003) How the Iraq dossier was written. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3076692.stm [Accessed 13 September 2007]
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