Public Relations and Propaganda

by Wendy Chadwick

Montreal, October 27,1994. The topic: a short research paper highlighting a comparison between public relations and propaganda. First stop, the library. Enter Clues, (Concordia University's library database); as I enter a word search for public relations the direction of my research has already begun; the Clues entry reads the following:

Public Relations
Public Relations......see related subject...Propaganda.

This indicator led me to question the relationship between the two words. What was odd is that when I did the reverse and entered propaganda, it did not refer me to public relations. It is strange how in some circles these two words can be understood to be synonymous while general perceptions of them are quite different. Public relations connotes a positive image while propaganda carries a very negative one. Perhaps this is due to its association with wartime propaganda, communism and Hitler. Nevertheless, its use has a much more historical background.

In January 1622, as Pope Gregory XV was reviewing the state of the church in Europe, he realized that the Catholic church was losing ground and wanted to counteract the effects of the Protestant Reformation. In June 1622, he created The Sacra Congregatio Christiano Nomini Propaganda, more commonly known as Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith)1.

If we consider the function of this institution, which was to carry the ideology of the Catholic faith to the new world and revive it in the old, can we not consider it to be a public relations campaign? In 1627 Pope Urban VIII founded the Collegium Urbanum, the seminary of the Propaganda, providing a central training school for missionaries.2 The question that rises is, what were they teaching them and why? Terrence Qualter writes about the seminary in an article titled "The Theory of Propaganda":

The work of the Propaganda was large-scale and "group-conscious," that is to say, it was directed not at individuals as such, but at the "heathen masses of the Americas" and at the "protestant populations of Europe.
The methods and the detailed presentation of material were left to the discretion of those in the field, to be determined in the light of prevailing circumstances, subject only to the broad definitions of policy set down by the Propaganda. The object was to bring men to a voluntary acceptance of the church's doctrines.3

Let us consider a modern-day situation; for example, a United States presidential candidate hires a public relations firm to represent him and his party. Would not the role of the public relations firm be to propagate a positive image of this person and his party to the American public, in the goal to elect said candidate to office? Just as the missionaries had an objective to propagate the doctrines of the Catholic church and encourage conversion, any public relations firm has the similar objective to create and propagate a positive image of its clients. Yet one falls under the heading of propaganda while the other is considered to be P.R.

To properly understand what is meant by propagate, the Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines it as:

to make known or familiar: fostering growing knowledge of, familiarity with, or acceptance of: Publicize. :to reproduce or accomplish incidence of elsewhere: expand the activity, intensity or transmission of: Transmit.4

In essence to propagate is to make known, to "spread the word". Is this not one of many functions that a public relations dept. or firm ensues? But what about the messages they are delivering, where does it come from? How do we know that the rhetoric of the propagator is done with the public's best interest at heart? Who do the P.R. people work for and from who do they receive compensation? To find out just what the role of a public relations firm is, I referred to a book titled Experts in Action: Inside Public Relations, the authors explained their views on using a public relations firm;

...a public relations firm may assume into two primary roles, or functions, for clients: as counsellor, and/or as implementor of programs or projects. Role of Counsellor: Clients seek counsel in planning and strategizing communications programs to achieve its goals and objectives. Once plans and strategies are formulated, commonly the firm is given the responsibility as counsellor, to develop a public relations program that organizes the overall communications effort to achieve the targeted goals and objectives....
Role as Implementor: A number of public relation firms function only in the role of the implementor of client-conceived programs and Projects... In the role as implementor, the firm operates on an 'ad hoc', as needed basis, serving as an extension of the public relations staff.5

So in essence 'public relations people' are delivering a message for someone else, 'the client', whose doctrines they may or may not agree with; and they are using their expertise to help their client achieve their goals. (In house P.R. departments would represent or defend their employer depending on the situation.) So where lies the difference between what they are doing and what propagandists are doing? Aside from all their other functions of 'in-house' good will programs, employee relations, etc., 'public relations people' are concerned with the image they represent. They want their client or company to look good in the public eye. But what if their client is not moral or ethical? What about corporate secrets, for example, of not using efficient environmental controls or not supporting employee safety standards? How will the P.R. people represent their employer then? In most situations, (except for extreme cases) they will still put forth the image of a good corporate citizen and defend their illusion to the public. Besides the fact that their employer compensates them to do so, it is because the public are consumers, and consumer's perception of the "entity", be it the church, or a corporation or an election candidate, must be a positive one if the "entity" is going to survive.

The most basic thing we must remember when comparing propaganda to public relations is that both are selling something, whether it be a doctrine or an image, and both have objectives and goals along with strategies to get them there. One question remains, and it is why public relations today so vehemently wants to distance themselves from any relationship with propaganda? If we look at the definitions of both, there are elements of similarity:

Harold Laswell: "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."

Charles A. Siepmann:"Propaganda is organized persuasion."

E.L. Bernays: "Propaganda is the consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group."

What is interesting is that E.L. Bernays is a P.R. giant who has spent most of this century in the field. He saw no harm in leading people to what he considered a desirable place. In 1955 he wrote a book called The Engineering of Consent based on the theory and practice of public relations:

There are three broad functions of public relations counsel: adjustment, information and persuasion... Persuasion,the third base on which public relations rests, is an inseparable part of a democratic way of life. In a sense, the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guarantees our right to persuade. It is implied and inherent in freedom of speech, assembly, and press. These rights may not be abridged. But like other rights, the rights of persuasion is subject to abuses.6

This public relations icon had written other books as well, one that is of particular interest is Propaganda, that further defined the field which still wasn't known as public relations."7 What I believe is happening here is that Bernays's perception of propaganda and public relations is one in the same with the exception of perhaps a few subtle differences.

E.L. Bernays: Definition of Public Relations
the attempt by information, persuasion and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity,cause, movement, or institution.8

If we compare Bernay's definitions of both propaganda and public relations, both convey a similar theme. I believe that the greater issue is to separate the negative connotation associated with propaganda. We must not forget that there are positive doctrines and ideas that can be propagated through propaganda or public relations as well. What about a campaign that supports equality, stopping race hatred, or simply just the "Participaction" campaigns. All of these campaigns have strategic plans and work towards a particular goal. Simply because we view them as positive ideologies does not mean that they are not propaganda.

In conclusion, I believe that propaganada, like so many words, has been taken out of context. Whether it is synonymous with public relations or not depends greatly on the interpretation of each person who uses it, hears it, or even takes time to contemplate it. We must give the P.R. industry credit for trying to raise the ethics and standards of the information they deliver. Propaganda generally does have a negative connotation and because of this we can understand why public relations professionals so vehemently want to distance themselves from any association with it.

1 Qualter, Terrence, "Propaganda and Psychological Warfare" (article), Random House, New York, N.Y., 1965 ,p.3.

2 Qualter, p.3.

3 Qualter p.3-4.

4 Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Meriam-Webster Inc., 1990.

5 Cantor, Bill, Experts in Action: Inside Public Relations, Longman Inc., White Plains, N.Y., 1989., pp.394-5.

6 Bernays, Edward L. (editor), The Engineering of Consent, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1955, p.7-8.

7 Cantor, pp.7-8.

8 Bernays, pp.3-4.

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