Theory Junkie: Review of Power, Persuasion and Propaganda in PR

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I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore the subject of control, power, persuasion and propaganda.

Far on the opposing end of Grunig’s optimistic theories of mutual understanding and benefit, reside authors such as Jowett and O’Donnell, L’Etang and Pieczka, Bernays and Miller. They write about power, persuasion and propaganda. Here, in the dark dominion of PR, control is everything.

Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” written almost a century ago in 1928 is perhaps the most famous example of a theoretical manifesto on this subject. Bernays talked of the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses, an unseen mechanism aimed at governing opinion, molding minds and forming tastes, largely by men we have never heard of”. A haunting legacy bequeathed to the Public Relations industry by the “father of PR”, these words continue to echo negatively in every debate on the ethics, the good will and the positive premise of PR as a whole.

Many theorists have built their arguments on Bernays’ ideas. Among them, Jowett and O’Donnell are two of the most recent. They developed the so called purpose model of propaganda. In essence, the model states that propaganda has the purpose of promoting the interest of one party to the detriment (or at the very least, not necessarily to the benefit) of another. It is characterised by control of the information flow, management of public opinion, and manipulation of behavioural patterns.

L’Etang and Pieczka’s take on the subject is from the viewpoint of rhetoric and persuasion. They present a counterpoint to Grunig’s ideas of symmetry (and asymmetry) by quoting Miller as saying that public relations is a “process which attempts to manage symbolic control over the environment”, arguing that “effective persuasion and effective public relations are ‘virtually synonymous because both are primarily concerned with exerting symbolic control over relevant aspects of the environment’”. L’Etang and Pieczka conclude that  through the very engagement in the creation of the persuasive message, the “persuadee” becomes convinced in the argument, and in their fair contribution to its formation.

The ideas presented in this short review are very different from the basic ideas of control as a function of simply exercising and managing the job. The concepts here refer to the very notion of control – through power, with the purpose of retaining, exerting and benefiting from it, and often against the conscious or unconscious will of the opposing party. In fact only Miller – with his idea of participation, albeit artificial and manipulated – speak of some sort of consent.

Control, in this sinister view on PR, is everything: it resides over behaviour and opinion, over messages and flow of information, over the rationale and over the mind.

So the question is, should the PR industry be ashamed, hide or deny the existence of such paradigms? Should we continue to discard stereotypes such as the one in Thank You for Smoking? The trends are certainly taking us in this direction and away from Bernays’ teachings.

But I can’t help but wonder, aren’t all these “bad things” that we can do what makes as unique as service-providers? I can’t imagine how persuasion and propaganda will ever seize to exist, so who will partake in those if we suddenly stopped offering them to a client, or our boss?

I think what is happening now and will continue to be the norm in the foreseeable future, is that talking, rather than doing it, will always be a taboo.

Avoid it or not, maintaining control, preserving power, exercising persuasion and carrying out propaganda are part of a PR practitioner’s skill set, and in some cases even your job description.

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