Is PR propaganda – or something more?


If you are going to tell a lie, don’t tell a little one because it will be recognised as a lie. Tell the biggest and most unthinkable lie. The greater the lie, the more effective it is as a weapon.” Hitler, Mein Kampf.

During a particularly long lecture I found my mind wandering off topic and on to a moral dilemma which occasionally gets me scratching my head – is PR propaganda in disguise?

After just a few weeks at Uni I am certainly not qualified to answer Yes or No to this question, so I decided to turn to the great, the good and the not-so-good of public relations to solve the puzzle.

The Oxford English Dictionary definitions for propaganda and PR are, on the surface, not too dissimilar. Both terms essentially refer to the spreading of information to influence others.

The difference, it can be argued, lies in motivation. Propaganda, per the dictionary, typically uses false or twisted information, while PR involves “professional maintenance” of reputations.

However, Edward Bernays –  the so-called “father” of modern PR – once stated: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the masses is an important element in democratic society”.

And author Kevin Moloney writes in Rethinking Public Relations (2006): “PR is weak propaganda. The intention of PR is to construct messages that are manipulative and propagandistic”.


Primitive forms of propaganda and PR date back centuries – propaganda to the c.515 BC Behistun Inscription and PR to Ancient Egypt, when clay tablets were used to promote “divine right to lead”.

But, while PR was not officially recognised as a “professional field” until the 20th century, ancient Sanskrit documents reveal that propaganda was helping to win wars in India from at least 300 BC.

Arguably, the first person to draw on both PR and propaganda for commercial success was US circus owner P.T. Barnum, who used newspapers to publicise his “amazing acts” in the 19th century.

It took the opening of the Boston-based Publicity Bureau in 1906, however, for PR to become “legit” – after co-founder Ivy Lee published an “open and honest” Declaration of Principles for practitioners.

Somewhat ironically, although Lee initially fought to improve the image of PR, he went on to work with the Nazis on propaganda ideas before World War Two – forever linking the two issues.

Another leader in early PR, Edward Bernays, embraced ‘conscious manipulation’ techniques – adopting scientific theories to “manipulate the behaviour of a herd-like public” in his PR campaigns.

Indeed, in one ethically questionable case, he managed to persuade more women to smoke – by using models to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes at the New York Easter Parade in 1929.

Just a few years later, in the 1930s, Bernays drew on his propaganda theories to start the first vocational course in PR – forever combining the two practices in the minds of many people.

Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by study blooms”, US author Alan Harrington later stated.

Bernays and Lee were not the only ones to adopt PR and propaganda techniques in the 20th century. Indeed, Britain, Germany, America, France and Australia all used propaganda in World War One.

But, following a rise in fascist dictatorships during the 1930s, propaganda started to fall out of favour – except with the Nazi Party, which set up its own Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.


Links between PR and propaganda have still, however, materialised over the decades – such as the 1972 Watergate scandal, when President Nixon was criticised for “stonewalling” in his PR responses.

But professional bodies, such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Global Alliance of PR, have since drawn up codes of conduct – to encourage greater transparency and ethical awareness.

And further transparency is encouraged by Grunig and Hunt’s models of public relations, which provide a theoretical foundation for “truthful two-way communication between firms and clients.

But, while propaganda has been described as an appeal to emotion rather than intellect, it can be argued that public relations is a management tool used to create goodwill.

Indeed, PR website states: “If what you are “spinning” has solid basis in fact, you’re doing PR. If not, it’s propaganda, plain and simple.”

However, according to Rethinking Public Relations author Kevin Moloney, there is simply no argument about it – PR is, has been and always will be intrinsically linked to propaganda.

Public relations is such a pervasive activity in our society today that it is impossible for a citizen or consumer to avoid it. The PR ‘voice’ speaks propaganda”, he claims.

** So, that’s it. There are arguments both for, and against, PR being a form of propaganda. I still have many months left at Uni – perhaps when, or if, I finish I’ll finally find an answer to this question.


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