Rethinking the impossible (3)

4 May

Rethinking_public_relations_1This is the final part of my review of the second edition of Rethinking Public Relations.

Now to the central discussion: of PR as propaganda. Lay (ie non-academic) readers will be bewildered that there’s a discussion to be had: ‘of course PR involves persuasion so is indistinguishable from propaganda’ the thinking will go. But the PR academic literature seeks a higher ideal and proposes that public relations should seek mutual benefits (ie for the sponsoring organisation and for the public or for society in general). The ethics of one-way persuasion have been questioned.

The influential PR academic James Grunig attempted a separation of PR from propaganda by describing an evolutionary process, in effect a ‘whig interpretation of PR history’ from publicity through to excellent public relations. This latter could be persuasive, but only if it was symmetrical (ie both parties have equal power and make equal gains).

Moloney finds a connection between PR and propaganda both in the literature and in practice. He notes that propaganda need not always be malign (citing public information campaigns, the Voice of America and the BBC World Service as examples of ‘white’ propaganda, where the source is clearly identifiable to the listener). He thus describes PR as either ‘white’ or ‘grey’ propaganda: ‘weak propaganda’ in his phrase.

So to the connection between PR (propaganda) and democracy. Moloney notes that PR flourishes in liberal democracies, and that the ‘consequences of PR appear … not to diminish existing democratic forms.’ He doesn’t argue that PR is a necessary condition for democracy, but rather that the two coexist either in a neutral or in a beneficial relationship.

Yet, if PR and propaganda are the same, he asks, how can PR be ethical? Following on from a discussion of the public relations ethics literature (Moloney finds this phrase a risible oxymoron), he alights on corporate social responsibility as as example of ethics through enlightened self-interest.

When it comes to the media, Moloney has harsh words. ‘The more distance between journalists and PR people, the better for a liberal democracy. PR grows out of democracy, not democracy out of PR.’ (I could rest my case for the brilliance and importance of this work solely on these two sentences.) I note that he’s dropped his over-idealistic proposals for the separation of journalism and PR from the new edition.

Moloney recognises that there will be resistance to his linking of PR and propaganda. But he concludes that the positive effects of PR outweigh the negative ones. Just.

2 Responses to “Rethinking the impossible (3)”

  1. Simon Collister 04/05/2006 at 4:27 pm #

    Good stuff, Richard.
    If I read this right…. couldn’t (or does?) Grunig’s model of symmetrical PR be used at a much higher level to evoke Moloney’s idea that PR and democracy co-exist? ie both parties benefit from one another?
    Just a thought!

  2. Richard Bailey 04/05/2006 at 4:37 pm #

    It can, but the debate is also about intentions. If the intention is always to persuade (ie ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’) then we’re never on that higher level. Moloney’s simply accepting that most PR is persuasive (why else would clients pay?), but as one among many voices in a pluralistic society this need not be a bad thing. I know you’re interested in discussions around democracy: do please read this book.

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