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


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.


Theory Junkie: Accountability Structure


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

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore the Accountability Structure and CSR.

We were introduced to this model during a guest lecture by Michael Hoevel from Glasshouse Partnership.

An old model of relationships between pillars of society in the capitalist world, this paradigm has seen significant developments over the years. While its continuous alteration keeps it relevant, its universal application has come under scrutiny in today’s ever so rapidly changing world.


The classic interpretation of this model establishes the relationships between the Public Sector, the Private Sector and the Citizens (depicted as Civil Society).

Businesses pay taxes to the government in exchange for regulation, access to the market and protection. The government grants the people representation of their aspirations and public goods such as healthcare and education in exchange for being elected into power. Businesses receive money from society in exchange for products and services they deliver. And in the middle of it all is the Media – standing guard as the fourth pillar of authority, revealing and punishing the untruthful. This is in essence, how our world works. These relationship, whether fair or not, represent how we have come to establish modern civilisation. Of course coffee companies don’t always pay taxes, supermarket chains don’t always deliver beef when they say they do, governments don’t always live up to the expectations of people, and most certainly of all, the media doesn’t always hold true to its role as a guardian of it all. Such is life.

But, as these complex relationships mature, mutations and amalgamations emerge:


Instead of having NASA fly space shuttles into orbit, we now have SpaceX, Instead of hoping for salvation to come from the heavens and land in the puddle that we use to wash our clothes in, we now have bankers with Nobel Peace prizes. Instead of relying on the government to safeguard our environment, we have created organisations like Greenpeace and WWF. And instead of hoping that the media will bring justice to the corrupt, some would argue, we now have social media, WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

So where does Corporate Social Responsibility come into these “newborn” categories of NGOs, Public-Private Partnerships and Social Entrepreneurship?

That’s for the communication professionals to decide. CSR is what we say it is. Is advancing space exploration through government contracts not socially responsible? Is lifting millions from poverty through banking not Nobel Peace prize worthy? Is our planet not worth saving? Is the Internet not the ultimate sentinel of human knowledge?

The Accountability Structure does not provide the answer. It simply establishes the framework within which these questions can exist.

How we mould these questions, is what CSR is all about.