Truth, Lies, PR and Propaganda

by Felicity Read

It’s been a good week to consider fundamental issues that should preoccupy PR practitioners such as the fine line between truth, lies, PR and propaganda. Despite the shock US election result, I doubt that too many of us spend much time thinking about these things.   But we should.  Mary Beard put it very well in her blog in the TLS on 9 November (, when she said that at least the Greeks and Romans understood the difference between truth and lies – and that we in the 21st century seem to have lost that instinct.

donald_trump_27150683144Donald Trump repeatedly told supporters that he would build a wall on the US/Mexican border, that he would abolish Obamacare and that he would lock Hilary Clinton up. But now he is President Elect, he seems to be backtracking on many of these key policies.  So, was he lying?  Was he persuading?  Was he indulging in propaganda?

As PR practitioners, we need to understand the difference between PR, persuasion and propaganda and the ethical code of conduct that binds us all in term of best practice. Is ethical persuasion possible?  What is the difference between persuasion and propaganda?   Edward Bernays, often called the Father of PR, titled his second book ‘Propaganda’ (1928), but now propaganda is regarded as low down the ethical tree in PR terms with negative overtones. It is one-way communication and Grunig and Hunt* located propaganda as the lowest form of communication in the press agency category.  If we look more closely at this, propaganda is described as using persuasion to manipulate an audience to behave in a way you want them to. So, on that basis Donald Trump can on the face of it, be labelled with peddling propaganda.

Propaganda works because it is accepted without challenge – as Trump supporters seem to have done.  The ability to detect and decode propaganda is as fundamental to a democratic society as is a free press.   So how does PR differ?  Best practice PR is two-way asymmetrical communication, where persuasion forms an integral part of the process but it’s not the process itself.   The TARES test (Baker & Martinson 2002) is the tool by which PR practitioners should identify ethical practice – is it Trustworthy, Authentic, Respectful, Equitable and Socially Responsible?

I think PR practitioners will argue for decades why and how Donald Trump won and the role of communication in that process. But what’s clear to me is that what Donald had above all else, and Hilary didn’t, was Roger Ailes ‘magic bullet’  – the ability to get the audience to like you.  A certain demographic: disenfranchised, white, male, 45+ liked his message a lot.  So, despite the potential lies and propaganda, he is going to the White House. Only time will tell what Trump reality is and if his words were empty and his promises lacking truth.

If it wasn’t so dangerous, this would be a great lesson in giving an audience what they want and talking to them in the way they want to hear.

*for a great discussion of the relevance of Grunig & Hunt to contemporary PR read Stephen Waddington’s critical review

Spread the love