What’s in a name?

Public relations people hate anyone suggesting that what they do is propaganda. Many PR people, particularly in politics, are also adept at accusing opponents of being in the propaganda business. In essence the formula is that we communicate information, you indulge in things which are ‘just PR’ and sometimes you sink to the depths and practise propaganda.

For PR people an embarrassing aspect of it all is that the self-styled ‘father’ of PR, Edward Bernays, actually used the term himself and as a title for one of his books. The problem is that the 20th century gave propaganda (and some of Bernays’ tactics) such a bad name that people have dreamt up new names for it and new ways of doing it. The typical totalitarian version of propaganda is epitomised by Hitler’s comment that “The great mass of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” In contrast the British World War Two propaganda (information)  head Sir John Reith emphasised that the basic of success was “The truth, nothing but the truth and, as near as possible, the whole truth.”

Many of these issues were canvassed in a recent excellent British Library exhibition Propaganda and Persuasion. The Library has published the exhibition catalogue, written by Professor David Welch. Welch is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the Study of Propaganda, War & Society at Kent University and has published widely on the subject. The catalogue is probably the best short, popular and comprehensive study of power and persuasion yet published. It traces the history of the term (the Catholic Church used it first) and how people persuaded and influenced others. PR people might be rather put off by his frequent blurring of distinctions between PR and propaganda but then they have to face the reality that the distinction is lost on many of our critics.

One particularly interesting discussion in the catalogue is how the British and Americans learnt from the First World War. All sides’ propaganda was exaggerated and based on outrageous distortions. By the time of World War Two there was a realisation that this sort of stuff wasn’t believed. No doubt a major factor was that people recruited to the trenches through patriotism and propaganda came back with an enormous distrust of it after experiencing reality – both in the war itself and in the years after. As a result Allied propaganda in WW2 (with the notable exception of the racist anti-Japanese stuff) was much more subtle. British propaganda was also frequently humorous. In a move which anticipated much later PR strategy the British also focussed their propaganda efforts on elites in the US when trying to influence Americans in the years before they entered both wars. The British team in the US included people such as Isaiah Berlin and Roald Dahl with the latter – then a handsome, decorated and wounded RAF officer – doing some of his work horizontally.

Today propaganda is more likely to be seen as ‘psyops’ which was pioneered during WW2 although there is still much internal propaganda, often based on falsehoods (Iraq WMD’s), which is less than subtle. Various types of propaganda, from ancient times to the 21st century are described by Welch, and the catalogue finishes with a summary of various definitions of propaganda from the early 1900s through to today and an excellent brief bibliography.

The blog read the Welch catalogue in between finishing What Orwell Didn’t Know? (Public Affairs Report, 2007) ,a collection of essays edited by Andras Szanto, based on discussions at the New York Public Library about the relevance of Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, today. The essay is one of the great pieces of political writing and a great guide to good, clear writing. The fundamental starting point for most of the essays is the fact that Orwell was writing in an era before mass TV penetration, social media, what we know about behavioural economics, the brain and psychology and the development of framing theory based on these developments. Today simple, straightforward and vivid language can be the most effective form of propaganda although Orwell’s observations are still relevant when we consider formulations such as ‘collateral damage’ for the killing of civilians. The essay topics are too broad to cover in the blog but the ones by Mark Danner, George Lakoff and Farnaz Fassihi should be read by both PR people and journalists.

Perhaps the best essay is Frances Fitzgerald’s Stellar Spin, on the Reagan Star Wars program. It is a wonderful case study of politics, propaganda, public relations and the gullibility of US society. So far the US has spent more than $100 billion on a program which doesn’t work and probably never will. Yet a majority of Americans believe the Star Wars shield is currently in place and works.