Once upon a time - centuries ago in internet time - the main sources of information were national broadcasters, commercial news organisations and independent news agencies....oh, and government departments.
State propaganda, whether sent out directly or mediated via numerous third parties, was planned, scheduled and 'controlled'.
Ah, the good old days!
Then came the internet...
...and social media.
Now, persuasive, powerful and often poisonous propaganda can come from virtually anyone, anywhere in the world.
These days, the flow, buzz and scope of (dis)information is on an industrial scale.
As my American cousins would say: "it's scary as hell'!
Here's the BBC's take on it:
Propaganda's troubled past has left an indelible stain on the art and craft of influencing people - a stain that's still visible today.
The word itself is problematic, especially if you take into consideration Wikipedia's definition:
"Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of the community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument.
Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes."
Compare this to the Wikipedia definition of 'public relations':
"The practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organization and the public [which] may include an organization or individual gaining exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment.
The aim of public relations by a company often is to persuade the public, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain point of view about it, its leadership, products, or of political decisions. Common activities include speaking at conferences, winning industry awards, working with the press, and employee communication."
Bar the "presenting one side of an argument" line, there really isn't much of a difference between the two definitions.
In practice, there is no difference at all.
Maybe that's why the 'new propagandists', (i.e. public relations practitioners) are finding it next-to-impossible to change age-old views and prejudices and convince people that it is a respectable profession.
It would be naive to paint a totally rosy picture of 'PRs' - after all, we've had too many stories of out of control spin, skulduggery and other scandalous behaviour.
In some cases, public relations activities may have hindered, rather than helped a situation. There have been documented cases where PR campaigns have also had a seriously negative impact on democracy.
Perhaps this explains why, when 'public relations' is mentioned in some quarters, there still seems to be an instantaneous judgement by others of 'rabid spin doctoring' or 'lying for a living'.
I'm sure that covert information is still being disseminated from dark rooms in secret locations filled with unsmiling bureaucrats in suits, remotely directing armies of automatons to spread lies designed to control the minds of the masses.
But, in the age of social media, these methods are risky and face a fearless and formidable response from people numbered in the hundreds of millions. Along with activists, they provide round-the-clock checks and balances on public relations activity that make being found out and publicly exposed highly likely, thus not worth the cost to an organisation's or government's reputation.
In my experience and from my observations, public relations is more effectively used as a force for 'good', rather than 'evil'.
Given some of the obvious benefits of PR/propaganda, especially in highlighting issues of public concern and benefit, I think - on balance - it deserves to secure its place alongside other 'considered' professions (e.g. in medicine, law and education).
So, where do we go from here?
The British Library is currently staging the Propaganda: Power & Persuasion exhibition in London (17th May - 17th September) which focuses on 'international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. From leaflet drops to tweets, for intentions good and bad.'
It's a fascinating area of study which has prompted me to ask two questions:
- Is it time to take ownership of this troublesome word and update it for the Twitter and Facebook age?
- Should public relations re-brand itself as propaganda?
Of course, it won't be easy. Because of its provenance, the term will probably always be used pejoratively by critics. But I think that with consistent use, 'promotion' and enthusiasm from people working in the field, it could actually capture people's imaginations and ultimately prove to be more effective and authoritative than 'public relations' which can often seem inadequate, despite its crucial role in modern communication.
The simple title of 'propagandist' could theoretically gobble up all of those roles performed under the general heading of 'marketing & communications': E.g. Chief Marketing Officer, Head of Communications, Brand Champion....even Reputation Manager!
Admittedly, a little tongue-in-cheek, but I think that it's worth thinking about.
This could be the ideal time for you to embrace the 'inner propagandist' in you!
Say it loud and say it proud:
"My name is [Insert your name here] and I'm a propagandist!
Thoughts on customer service, communication and, of course, reputation management.