Propaganda & ethics

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Via di Propaganda street sign in Rome, 2010 (photo credit: C. Chouinard)


Propaganda & Ethics


Propaganda - is defined as information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view. The origin of the term comes from the New Latin Congregatio de propaganda (i.e. to propagate) fide[1] , formed by Pope Gregory XII to convert people to Catholicism both in Rome and other non-Catholic countries.

Forms of Propaganda


There are two forms of propaganda; agitative - which attempts to rouse an audience to certain ends and integrative - which attempts to render an audience passive or accepting.

There are three types of propaganda -
  1. White propaganda - it comes from a source that is identified correctly and the information in the message tends to be accurate, this form of communicate attempts to build lasting credibility with the audience that can be used at a later date. White propaganda has the potential to be used with negative consequences. An example of white propaganda is overt patriotism felt by nations, sometimes referred to as "jingoism" that can reinforce the "us vs. them" mentality described in Tajfel's Social Identity Theory
  2. Black propaganda - is when the source of the information is hidden or credited to a false authority and the message spreads lies and deceptions. The most well known case of this sort of propaganda is the Nazis' propaganda campaign during the Second World War that was lead by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels .
  3. Gray propaganda - it falls somewhere in between black and white, the source may or may not be correctly identified and the accuracy of the information is uncertain. Gray propaganda is still very much a form of communication that exists in marketing, advertising and public relations, it is this sort of misleading information that makes the public cautious of the above professions[2]

History of Propaganda

The first use of the word propaganda in English was in 1718 in the religious frame of reference.[3] However, the presence of a "herald crier" or "courier" in Sumerian cuneiform tablets suggests a form of influencing public opinion since approximately 3000 BC. [4] The first systematic use of propaganda for the purpose of persuasion was in ancient Greece. Plato's Gorgias criticizes the study of rhetoric as being capable of persuading others, or using "oratory unjustly." The statues and temples in Ancient Greece were built as symbols of the power of the state over Sparta [5]

All great emperors in history, including Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Napoleon, all used edifices and art to honour themselves and remind their citizens of their prowess.




Ethical Public Relations and Propaganda


There are many critics of public relations that believe the professions' roots are in propaganda, particularly with the work of Edward Bernays, considered by many to be the father of public relations. Bernays was influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud's work on the unconcious and Wilfred Trotter's herd instinct. Bernays's first book on the subject, written in 1928, was titled Propaganda. The tactics Bernays suggests in his book are still being employed to promote corporate and cultural values, as well as goods, services and political parties. The critics of PR argue that these tactics are undermining democracy and free will. [6] The elements of deliberate manipulation along with a plan to achieve a purpose that is advantageous to the propagandist is what helps to define these tactics at propaganda not the open, exchange of ideas that public relations should be striving to create for its publics.[7] Bernays himself did not describe propaganda in a negative fashion. In an interview on the topic, he said:

(Public Relations) is a two-way street, advising the client on attitudes and actions to win over the public, on whom the viability of the unit depends and then educating, information and persuading the public to accept these social goods, ideals, concepts, whatever.



Public relations defenders such as James Grunig believe that public relations have the potential to function as an ethical exchange of ideas and that Public Relations has the potential to be much further removed from propaganda than many believe. Grunig and his colleague James Hunt developed four models of public relations based on "four historical models that are still in use today.[8] Grunig's category of press Agentry Publicity is another form of propaganda where the main concern of the Public Relations expert is to enhance the reputation of the client and to persuade the clients' audience to either agree with, purchase or support the client.[9]


Ethical perspectives on Propaganda


It is often difficult to identify exactly what is propaganda as one person's propaganda may be another person's education. Many modern approaches to the subject have argued that propaganda does not necessarily have to be the deliberate and systematic manipulation of consumers but that it is possible to conduct advertising and public relations campaigns without being unduly propagandistic.[10]

Jacques Ellul [11] believed that propaganda is not created intentionally but produced as a result of our collective interpretations as we live in the same society. The risk to society is that individuals interpret black propaganda as the only negative form, when "It operates instead with many different kinds of truth" [12] Ellul believed that propaganda was a means to an end and therefore ethical given the Docterine of Double Effect[13]

Like Ellul, Leonard Doob believed that socialization was the at the root of propaganda, as society was influenced by persuaders, although not all propaganda is intentional. This implies that Doob supported propaganda as the judgement of value[14]

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's propaganda model asserts that propaganda's sole intent of mass media is to be manipulated by companies trying to sell their product and its manipulation of the press is the height of unethical behaviour


Postmodern theories on the subject outline the following steps for public relations practitioners to take to ensure that they are taking an ethical approach when it comes to the use of persuasion and propaganda -

  • PR practitioners must acknowledge the political nature of their activities and to be aware of the power relations inherent in everyday practice.
  • Public relations is not objective. The public relations practitioner must recognize the balance of understanding both sides and to not promote one over the other. The ideal is to facilitate the relationship between an organization and its publics.
  • Public relations as a practice needs to constantly be self-questioning and self-evaluating the balance of power between their goals and their publics.
  • Ethics needs to be used to describe and assess communication acts.
  • Practitioners who acknowledge that they are using persuasion and forms of propaganda to achieve their objectives are often those with the most evolved and ethical approach, they are attempting to create a policy of honesty and transparency with their publics.
  • It would be very helpful to see public relations practitioners adopt a professional code of conduct and practices, to help deal with some of these ethical issues.
  • PR professionals must engage with propaganda and understand that persuasion is part of the industry but that there are ethical ways to achieve this goal and this is what must be determined through the code of conduct.


  1. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/propaganda
  2. ^ Type the content of your reference here.
  3. ^ Fellows E. 'PROPAGANDA:' HISTORY OF A WORD. American Speech [serial online]. October 1959;34(3):182. Available from: Communication & Mass Media Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 22, 2013.
    http://www.msvu.ca:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=9652000&site=ehost-live&scope=site
  4. ^ Taylor, P. M. (1995). Munitions of the mind: A history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present era. Manchester, U.K: Manchester University Press.

    Excerpts http://books.google.ca/books?id=_KS3fBvjkicC&lpg=PA19&pg=PA21#v=onepage&q&f=false
  5. ^ (Jowett, Garth, 2006)
  6. ^ Fawkes, Johanna. (2007). Public relations models and persuasion ethics: is fear of persuasion an obstacle to ethics? 57th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association. San Francisco, CA - May 24-28.
  7. ^ Jowett, Garth. (2006).
  8. ^ (Grunig, Hunt, 1984)
  9. ^ Models of Public Relations, Management Study Guide http://www.managementstudyguide.com/public-relations-models.htm
  10. ^ Black, Jay. (2001).
  11. ^ (Ellul, 1965)
  12. ^ Introduction to Ellul's Propaganda: The formation of man's attitudes. Konrad Kellen
    http://monoskop.org/images/4/44/Ellul_Jacques_Propaganda_The_Formation_of_Mens_Attitudes.pdf
  13. ^ Docterine of Double Effect http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/
  14. ^ (Waluchow, 2003)