A while ago I visited the British Library in London and caught an excellent exhibition called “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion.” At it, multimedia displays covered everything from the use of propaganda to demoralise the enemy during wartime, to its use as a force of national cohesion during the end of apartheid, to attempts to persuade the Brits to eat more healthily.
One of the talking heads in the exhibition argued that public relations was, in fact, just “propaganda, successfully rebranded.” This made me feel somewhat defensive – surely propaganda is an evil thing? – until I was also told that propaganda is, in fact, ethically neutral. It is the intent behind it which determines the side of the moral divide where it sits.
So, are we really propagandists in disguise? As part of the exhibition, we were given “A user’s guide to basic propaganda techniques.” Some of the techniques listed definitely chimed with what we might do in our profession: “Establish authority – link a person or idea with existing symbols of power and authority;” “Use humour – making your audience smile or laugh can make ideas seem less threatening:” “Hammer it home – Decide on your message and stick to it. Saturate your audience, repeating it in as many different media as you can mobilise.” All this seems pretty reasonable to me.
On the other hand, further investigation of the guide reveals the more unsavoury side of propaganda. “Create fear – in a state of fear your audience is more likely to believe you;” “Disguise the source – carefully plant stories which so that they come from an independent source your audience trusts;” and “Make false connections – start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial.” Whilst all these are undoubtedly effective, we would rightly shy away from them ethically. To my mind this highlights the power which we can have as communicators, but equally the responsibility we have to use this with restraint.
Perhaps we can agree with the following definition of propaganda, provided by the novelist and thinker, Aldous Huxley, in 1936: “Propaganda gives force and direction to the success movements of popular feeling and desire; but it does not do much to create these movements. The propagandist is a man who analyses an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.”
Nick Andrews is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for EMEA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.