Governments’ Use of Public Relations and Propaganda - Parallels and Differences
”Public relations and propaganda are two communication tools that are at opposite ends of the spectrum”1
There is a widely held perception amongst the general public that there is no genuine difference between propaganda and public relations. This is a view also advocated by some communication scholars who equate these two terms.2 The truth lies somewhere between this perception and the one stated in the introductory quote. Although there are a number of parallels between public relations and propaganda, there are also fundamental differences.
The definitions of public relations are so numerous that it is difficult to give one which would find universal consent. For this paper and in order to illustrate the difference to propaganda most efficiently a definition, which stresses the importance of mutual understanding between the organisation and the public, as well as the benefaction to both, will be used. According to Long and Hazelton public relations is ”a communication function of management through which organisations adapt to, alter, or maintain their environment for the purpose of achieving organisational goals”.3
Propaganda, in contrast, attempts to solely advance the interests of the propagandist and shows disregard for advantages to be gained by the receivers during this communication process. Consistent with this reading, Jowett and O’Donnell deliver one of the most plausible definitions of the term propaganda, namely that it is ”the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve the desired intent of the propagandist”.4
Having defined the key terms, the parallels between propaganda and public relations, which often make a distinction between the phrases difficult, will now be discussed. Most importantly, both are not a result of a chain of incidental actions and reactions but are rather deliberate, well organised and planned in advance. The fact that the majority of organisations have established communication departments dealing with these issues has lead observers to, for example, criticise the United States government as being ”a huge propaganda (…) machine, paid from the taxpayer’s funds”5.
This is an interesting claim and leads to examining the following fundamental differences between propaganda and public relations. Propaganda is one-way communication aimed at exclusively profiting the sender and manipulating the receiver’s response and behaviour. Public relations, on the other hand, is a two-way communication process the goal of which is to be mutually beneficial to both the organisation (sender) and its publics (receiver). In addition, propaganda has a negative connotation while public relations is seen as ” the offspring of journalism”6 and, although about as critically scrutinised as the former, is seen as a slightly more positive way of communicating with publics.
One of the most notorious areas regarding the controversy of the differences between the two terms is the public relations of governments. The course of history has tainted the area of government public relations to a degree at which any information coming from this source is automatically perceived and described as propaganda by sceptics. This paper will use two case studies in order to illustrate the fact that governments’ public relations is not always propaganda. In addition it will use these examples to highlight the important differences between public relations and propaganda.
In a research project conducted in 1999, a dramatic rise in the advertising budget of the British government under Tony Blair was discovered.7 The increasing expenditure of governments in the field of public relations and, in some instances propaganda, as will be analysed in the second half of this paper, seems to be a worldwide trend. Governments have discovered that ”communication (is) the epistemological base of political campaigns”8 and that it has to be used in order to remain in power and secure re-election.
The first case study to be examined is one of governmental public relations. In Australia one of the currently most well-known public relations campaigns is the National Tobacco Campaign run by the Commonwealth Government. Also known as the Quit Now campaign it was launched in 1996 and started off by ”focusing on abstract concepts like risk and probability”9. Due to the existing two-way communication process in public relations it was soon noticed that this tactic was not very successful at convincing the target audience, namely smokers aged 18-40, to give up their habits. It showed the need for governments to ”act on public comments received, or the exercise will be seen as hollow propaganda”10. Consequently, the Commonwealth government adapted to this response by the public and decided to change the campaign. Its goal being to carry ”messages which will be meaningful to smokers”11.
The Quit Now campaign started using graphical images of the damage smoking does to, for example, the brain, lungs, heart and arteries. This use of images to shape perceptions is also a tool used by propagandists. In both cases the aim is to ”produce a strong and emotional response”12. However, in accordance with political public relations guidelines as set out in the Australian Government Communication Programs brochure, the public can assume that the images shown are real and the statements made truthful13, as opposed to propaganda.
The Quit Now campaign clearly is beneficial to both the organisation (government) and the target audience (smokers). Firstly, it supports the political objectives of the government, namely to be seen as a responsible administration encouraging a healthy life style and supporting people by giving them the means to do so, as well as protecting the health of non-smokers. Secondly, this public relations campaign also supports the government’s economic aims by decreasing the number of smokers and hence cases of smoking related diseases. This means the governmental costs for health care and hospitals will go down. Thirdly, Quit Now benefits the target audience by helping them to lead a healthier and, consequently, longer life. In addition, it is also highly probable that the campaign will disencourage other sections of the public from taking up smoking and hence, benefit the entire public, as well as the target audience and the government.
1 Paul Bleile ”PR& propaganda: where do you draw the line?”, Communication World, vol. 15, iss. 6, p.26
2 Robert McChesney ”Worth reading - Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 12, iss. 4, p. 479
3 Dennis Wilcox et al, Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics (Longman, New York, 2000), p.4
4 Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks California, 1999), p.4
5 George Liebman ” Close the White House departments of propaganda”, The American Enterprise, vol. 10, iss. 2 (1999), p.10
6 Alan R. Raucher ”Public relations in business: the business of public relations”, Public Relations Review, vol. 16, no. 3 (1990), p.20
7 Ian Darby ” Public service or propaganda: rising advertising budget of the UK government”, Marketing (14 October 1999), p.28
8 Judith S. Trent and Robert V. Friedenberg, Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices (Praeger Publishers, London, 1995), p.xv
9 Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing ”Story behind the campaign” at http://www.quitnow.info.au/fact/factc.html (accessed on 6 June 2002)
10 Jim Macnamara, Jim Macnamara’s Public Relations Handbook (Information Australia, Melbourne, 2000 ), p.13
11 Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing ”Campaign Fact File” at http://www.quitnow.info.au/fact/facta.html (accessed on 6 June 2002)
12 Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing ”Story behind the campaign” at http://www.quitnow.info.au/fact/factc.html (accessed on 6 June 2002)
13 Wendy Hamilton, Government Communication Programs: A Guide to Design and Implementation (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1991), esp. pp.3; 6; 16