PR vs Propaganda: manipulation or dialogue?

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"The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd."
Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher

The use of the term "propaganda" as a synonym for public relations has been widely avoided because of its negative perception. However, the propaganda work done during World War II gave a strong impetus to the growth of PR in the UK, as well as in many other countries. Many scholars, including the most influential modern PR academics (Bernays, Carey, Habermas, just to name a few) don`t make a distinction between propaganda and PR and conclude that they are both concepts of manipulative communication. Grunig and Hunt (1984), on the other hand, have offered a developmental model for transformation towards a better PR, evolving from manipulation to mutual understanding, a two-way symmetric way of communication.

So are we on our way to a new form of PR, clearly separated from what is known as propaganda? In political PR, especially during war times or election campaigns, when it`s particularly important for governments to gain the nation`s trust and support, ethics take a back seat and strategies of propaganda come to the fore.In Germany, propaganda is still a "forbidden" term, associated with totalitarian state communications, reminding of what has happended during the Third Reich, when Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, manipulated a whole nation with his actions, along with total control of the media. He was, by any means, a didactic play when it comes to propaganda. German journalist Smoltczyk (2005) compared Goebbel`s strategies to what is practiced in politics nowadays. Here are some of his examples.
  • Today`s poster and billboard advertising of a presidential candidate, only showing the candidate`s head, was born in 1932. Goebbels managed to brand Adolf Hitler as a "logo" for his party, the NSDAP, and personalized the campaign to the point where people were no longer voting for a party, but for Hitler himself.
  • Goebbels also "invented" the party conventions, with music, flags and several speakers who would work the crowd until the party`s leader gives his speach. This kind of staging can still be seen at the big national conventions of the Republican / Democratic Party in USA.
  • During the heated phase of the election campaign, Goebbels made Hitler fly around Germany with a plane. He was flying 30.000 miles, speaking to 15 Million people. Italian president Silvio Berlusconi went on a very similar trip during his campaign 2001, when he went on a cruise along the Italian coast, every landing being celebrated with fireworks, a band and a big crowd.
  • Goebbels sent out 50.000 gramophone records with speeches and anthems, something that can be seen as an early podcast.
  • During the war, when the German media was long forced into line, Goebbels sent journalists to the battle zone so they could report as "soldiers amongst soldiers", a principle that is still used by the US military, as we could see in the movie "war spin".
When it comes to political PR, we are nowhere near a two-way symmetric form of public relations. Governments still manipulate the media and the public, they release false information and are generally more about ordering and telling than listening and talking. The big difference to what has happended 70 years ago, is that we now live in a pluralistic and democratic society. We are enabled to question what our government or the mainstream media tell us. The internet gives us more opportunities than ever to do so - and it is our obligation to make use of them.


Grunig, James & Hunt, Todd (1984): Managing Public Relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Moloney, Kevin (2000): Rethinking Public Relations. The Spin and the Substance. London: Routledge.
Smoltczyk, Alexander (2005): Die Marke Hitler. In: Der Spiegel Nr.7/2005.

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