Propaganda or public relations - what's the difference anyway?

Nazi Anti-Semitic Poster in Latvian Language - Museum of Latvia's Occupation - Riga - Latvia

Both PR and propaganda are extremely powerful tools with the potential to do ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on the skill and intent of the practitioner. PR is rooted historically in propaganda, and indeed some would have, in the past, considered PR to be a subset of propaganda. Because propaganda has taken on a pejorative meaning, efforts have been made to clearly demarcate the two. This, in combination with a positivistic approach to PR theory and a popular view of PR as not adhering to the ‘whole truth’ (not helped by the often clandestine nature of the practice), has led to the ‘accusation’ that PR is the same as propaganda, and therefore is ‘bad’.

One way to solve this is to accept the social nature of PR and examine it from a social constructionist perspective where ‘truth’ is not absolute but is constructed as part of a discursive framework where all actors (i.e. ‘organisations’ and their ‘publics’ as part of one whole social context) participate in the construction of meaning and ‘truth’. PR practitioners and propagandists alike are responsible for implementing discursive changes i.e. changes to the framework that makes particular meanings and ‘truths’ possible. Whether or not these changes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on whether they lead to relationships where the balance of power between actors in the process of change is considered unethical by society. In the end there’s not much to distinguish PR and propaganda other than the outcome.


Although there is some disagreement in the literature over the origins of the word and the beginnings of the practice, suffice to say that propaganda has been around for a long time. It far predates the early 20th century where it fell into the hands of people who didn’t believe in participatory democracy and thus became about orchestrating support for the ruling elite.

It was at that time when the word ‘propaganda’ became a pejorative term for the winning of hearts and minds. And it may not be a coincidence that as the negative associations with propaganda grew, the term ‘public relations’ began to be used to describe essentially the same thing but enacted by those perceived as morally virtuous.

This comparison is understandably uncomfortable and in defence of PR, many practitioners and theorists deny that it has anything to do with them. This has led to a substantial effort by PR theorists to distance the two.

If we consider that much of PR in practice still relies on a transmission model of communication i.e. a simple sender to receiver model where the message goes out and is received loud and clear by the passive listener who absorbs the information and acts on it. This was thrown out in communication theory long ago, in favour of models that depict a more active audience.

An active audience must be persuaded to comply with the intention of the propaganda or PR campaign; whether or not the act of compliance results in ethical behaviour on the part of the audience or the source of the message entirely depends on the intent and outcome.

For example, those German citizens who supported Hitler would not have done so if they didn’t see any advantage of complying with the messages transmitted (advantages in this case such as solutions to the economic crisis, prospects for employment etc.). What was unethical about the Nazi propaganda was that support of the propagandistic messages led to the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

This is an accusation levied at PR practitioners as much as it is thrown at journalists. Spin doctors are not the sort of people you really want to be friends with, right? Publicists are evil manipulators of the public’s opinions and attitudes, yes?

Press agentry is mentioned by the gurus of PR theory, Grunig and Hunt and one of four models of PR. They say that in this model the truth is unimportant and the purpose is propaganda. This neatly delineates such bad practice from their normative model of PR where attachment to the truth is not mentioned explicitly but it is posited as the most ethical model for practice.

Part of PR’s PR issue is probably due to the fact that much of PR practice that is visible to the public takes the form of press agentry and therefore is, understandably, viewed as propagandistic. This matters hugely for the reputation of the profession – imagine if all NHS doctors were assumed to be pushing drugs onto their patients in return for a big fat pay packet from the pharmaceutical company at the end of the month, the medical profession would soon be labelled as corrupt.

It’s hugely problematic to discover that there is still a perception from practitioners themselves that most PR does not fit this model – public relations practitioners view the use of asymmetrical communication as the norm.

But rather than writing off PR as like propaganda and therefore inherently bad, let us look at it in a different way.

Until very recently, theories of PR, especially those based on systems theory, have taken a positivist approach and this is largely what has created the ‘whole truth’ good, ‘not the whole truth’ bad, dichotomy. This is too simple.

It’s actually quite difficult to put a pin between PR and propaganda in theory, except, according to any positivist discourse, in their relationship to truth (i.e. PR regards the truth as important, propaganda does not). As long as PR necessarily disregards the truth in practice, if only by omission of certain facts, we will have a problem, and theories will invite a negative comparison with propaganda. There has to be a way of breaking out of this and perhaps moving away from the positivistic discourse that exists within systems theory could offer a solution.

PR is an activity that is situated in society and is concerned with the relationships an individual, group, or organization makes with the other actors in a social context, it is justifiable then to take a social constructionist or a critical theory perspective. From a critical theory point of view, ‘truth’ is socially constructed. In this sense, PR and propaganda both look to construct a particular truth, and this is consistent with a Foucauldian point of view where public relations is seeking to establish and reinforce discrete messages that contain within them truths, rather than having a total detachment from truth.

From a Foucauldian/Critical Theory perspective, PR theorists Motion and Leitch use the term “discourse technologists” to describe PR practitioners and by this they mean that the role of the PR practitioner is to implement discursive changes. These changes can either open up or close down particular ways of talking about things, including organizations. In a democratic society, this is not wholly different to what propaganda sets out to do.

When a change in discourse achieves hegemonic status, the power of the propagandist (or, indeed, the PR practitioner) is realised. When the outcome is a reduction in rights or quality of life for sections of society, the ethics of those wielding that power are clearly in question. When this power defines discourse for those who might oppose such a reduction in rights or quality of life, it overwhelms a society. The is what happened in Nazi Germany. And that is what is happening now in the UK in relation to welfare reforms (see the syndicated blog from Scriptonite).

Conversely the use of powerful PR (or propaganda) can have local to global effects that are both ethical and of overall benefit to society. So let’s put it to use in improving the health and wellbeing of all people!


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This blog is a great example of what I am doing atm. I am writing a blog about propaganda, but mine is set out a little bit different. My blog might not mention the active and passive audiences because I am writing more about the propaganda it self. I will be using your blog as an example and will mention it in my bibliography for the upcoming blog.

I am off to write my blog about PR and propaganda now.

Well done, consuming read.

Thanks for your feedback and for linking back to my blog in your propaganda entry.

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