Propaganda versus Public Relations: There Is a Difference

Cover of book Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds (Tony Shaw, Cinematic Cold War)

For today’s average consumer, you and I, differentiating between when we are being wooed by an organization from when we are being manipulated can be very difficult. 

In today’s environment, is there even a difference between public relations and propaganda?

Both public relational and propaganda activities ultimately function to inform and persuade the public. They both engage in community efforts to get the public to invest in organizational platforms. They both use advertising and marketing techniques to attract interest.

However, there is a marked difference between the two….

What is the purpose of propaganda?

Initially, propaganda was only a tool to disseminate information, but more importantly, to present the reformed Catholic Church in a positive light. In fact, Pope Gregory XIII first used the word when he created a program to educate priests on how to educate and engagethe public.

Today’s propaganda, though….

In its current incarnation, though, propaganda has a very negative connotation. Modern propaganda relies on distortions, and even lies, to persuade the public. Often referred to as spin, propaganda is used to not only shape and influence thought, but it is also used to control public opinion and individual thought.

How does propaganda affect you?

Propaganda can have disastrous effects on your world! Propaganda is often uses manipulation to gain support and then control over public opinion regarding history, politics and government, i.e. in getting public support for engaging in wars. Worse yet, propaganda influences you to make decisions, big and small, that can adversely affect your quality life.

For example….

Both WWI and WWII saw propaganda used in the United States and Germany, respectively, to influence and then control public thought.

In the United States President Wilson’s administration used propaganda to gain support for the American participation in WWI. Hitler’s Germany used propaganda not only as a tool to disseminate distortions about the Jews but also to gain support for its campaign to ethnically cleanse Germany of all people Hitler and the Nazi party marginalized.

Cultural revolution campaign in China (Chinese Poster)

Later on, propaganda was used during the Cultural Revolution in China to reform its class structure and to remove the capitalistic system that left so many impoverished, which included denying citizens religious freedoms.

However, propaganda has also been used to influence and promote social structures as well….

In the United States, the original version of Birth of a Nation (1915) was a propagandist film promoting racial ideology related to African-Americans in this country. In addition to this film, the book The Bell Curve used scientific racism to promote the idea that IQ was connected to race.

And how does all of this history apply to you…?

Ultimately, in all its uses, the purpose of propaganda is to first gain public support for an idea and then control public opinion, your opinion.

More significantly, organizations that employ propaganda are engaging in one-way relationships where press agency and publicity are used to form public opinion and garner support, whether you agree with the issue or not!

…So, how does propaganda differ from public relations?

While propaganda might employ one of the four models seen in public relations, public relations activities usually involve organizations understanding the publics they serve. Today’s public relations activities mostly involve two-way relationships.

Organizations that engage in two-way relationships almost always:

  • Research the public they wish to engage.
  • Set up a plan of action based on facts (not distortions) gathered from research
  • Set up a system of analyzing the effects of their campaign on the public.

Another vast difference between public relations and propaganda is that the information that is disseminated as a part of public relations activities is almost always based on research and is factualno spin at all!

What activities might an organization use to hook you?

As a part of a public relations campaign, an organization employs a number of different methods to influence its public, methods which include holding eventsparticipating in community-based programsusing social media to engage publics, and advertising.

Examples of successful public relations activities include:

  • Ivy Lee’s intervention in a train crash in 1906 where the first press release was sent out, which entailed the true details of the accident.
  • The Smokey the Bear campaign, which warned campers against starting forest fires, started during WII and is widely recognized by both children and adults.
  • The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” promoted positive body images for women beginning after the turn of the millennial. This campaign focused on promoting realistic images of all female body types.

Propaganda versus Public Relations

Propaganda is very one-sided and does not encourage discourse between organizations and their publics.

While some organizations might employ aspects of propaganda in trying to inform and persuade a public, good public relations relies on engaging publics in two-way relationships that promote honest and open dialogue between the organization and its public.


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