PR is not a disaster – it’s propaganda

You’ve got to love a blog called PR Disasters. This isn’t schadenfreude (you’ve also got to love the Germans for coming up with words like that). It’s an insightful look into How Not To Do It, and by that token, take everything PR Disasters documents, and do it the other way.

Today it criticises a sweeping destruction of PR as propaganda. Well, unfortunately, that’s what PR is – or was. Edward Bernays originally coined the phrase when trying to think of a more acceptable term for the activities indulged in during wartime. Said Bernays, “When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words Council on Public Relations.” Nice.

Anyway, back to the video. It’s incredibly manipulative – not persuasive, manipulative. It uses emotive images, referring to ‘unknown PR companies’ using ‘sophisticated techniques’ to ‘manipulate’ people, talking about the ‘dirty little secret’ of most news being in fact PR and comparing it to advertising. I could just about buy the argument about a lot of news being PR, but that’s largely in the hands of a free press who take the decision, knowingly, to publish it. Sometimes, of course, the press gets it wrong but that’s life.

Everything else in the video is a gross distortion. If you’re not in PR, of course you don’t know who the invisible PR companies are. Before I worked in financial IT, I didn’t know who Warburgs were (they’re now UBS). I’m sure most people hadn’t even heard of Barings before Nick Leeson brought them to their knees single-handed. And these are companies that deal with money – your money. Not even your opinion – your money. Of course PR companies use sophisticated techniques. That’s because the audience is sophisticated. And PR=advertising? C’maaaaan. Everything’s blown out of the water when a web address is shown at the end: There’s your agenda. Now we know. Or we would do if the website existed. Like The Electric Banana, it doesn’t seem to exist any more. How much more invisible could you get? None. None more invisible.

The problem is that a lot of the comments (it’s a YouTube video – democracy in action) think the video’s great. And it is a problem. It’s the ultimate irony: PR has bad PR.

But hang on a minute: let’s backtrack. If I were opening a restaurant, I would be a fool not to advertise. That’s self-promotion. I would relish a good review. That’s endorsement. I would even consider inviting critics in, to write about me. Is that manipulation? Or is it the truth?

Propaganda existed at a time when opinions were necessarily polarised. Now, in our complex, balanced and checked, media-saturated world, we have PR. Heck, PR is just an opinion. Get over it.

The problem is really who to believe. Do we believe a loose cannon – and I can’t think of any looser than an enterprise that calls itself Guerilla News – or do we believe the sophisticates?

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