PR, Not Propaganda

An excerpt from the bestseller “The Global PR Revolution”

Since before the advent of social media, PR has also been accused of being involved in corporate or political propaganda. The term “PR” has sometimes been equated with propaganda and manipulation of the public. Yet, actual professional PR was never conceived as a propaganda tool! Delivering precise, engaging, honest, and understandable news is not propaganda. The goal of propaganda is entirely different: to manipulate. Propaganda means being able to lie in a way that deceives people to believe everything one says. Propaganda has always been closely linked to politics. We don’t engage in political PR. Nowadays, maybe politics is a kind of propaganda, with or without the PR. Several years ago, my good friend, two-term Nevada governor Bob Miller, was a guest on Bulgaria’s most popular talk show, where he was asked how he managed to win so many elections. “I promised a lot,” he replied. “In politics, there is no way around it. You promise you win; you don’t promise, you don’t win,” he said. Politicians’ promises are a type of propaganda in a certain sense. Political PR has always been dependent on the country itself. The differences are mind-boggling if you compare a country in North America with Eastern Europe or East Asia with Latin America.

Corporate PR is different.

It is much more common worldwide because it presents a product or a service and has a standard and established business etiquette. There are national and regional specifics and differences in how cultures perceive certain products or services. Still, consumers who use smartphones, for example, see them in the same way — like smartphones. It’s not like left and right on the political spectrum, meaning different things in different places to other people. Another reason we do not get involved in political PR is that there are no politics anymore. Ideologies are gone, politics are gone. PR is not propaganda and should have nothing to do with it — all the more so today, when people can access hundreds of thousands of sources to verify what a politician is saying and form their opinions. You tell someone that a product is superb. They go to YouTube and find out that ninety out of a hundred comments about the product are harmful.

How can that product be superb, then? What kind of “PR propaganda” can you use to convince them?

A few years ago, I was at the office of Hill & Knowlton in Brussels, and their manager told me,

Max, my colleagues have heard a lot about you;

they want to meet up with you.” We met at a dining hall; about one hundred people showed up. I started talking about social media and how lobbyism is dead and outdated. People used to meet in hotel lobbies when there were no valid arguments to be set on the “public” table and try to convince one another on matters concerning legislation and regulation. However, today, there is plenty of information — and all those people who meet in lobbies, restaurants, and apartments are involved in corruption. That’s not lobbying anymore — they meet to get some extra money. In principle, lobbying has always been borderline, and you never know whether you are on the law’s right or wrong side. You always tread on the edge. After that talk in Brussels, I had lunch with their manager. “You colleagues seem rather depressed,” I said. “Max, in Brussels, these people deal only with lobbying, and you talked to them for an hour about how lobbying was dying.” “God, he is right!” I thought. There are thousands of lobbying firms in Brussels, the capital of the EU, and each one is trying to overtake the others in terms of more efficient contacts and accomplishing results for their clients. Thank God they must disclose their revenues and clients. This should be the rule anywhere in the world regarding lobbyists.

PR emerged out of the necessity to explain a small part

of backstage political and business relations to the public. Back then, all decisions were made behind closed doors. Everything happened in studies and into the revolution's 45 lobbies. Backstage-era politicians would think, “We have to say something to our voters. How should we go about doing that? Let’s call James Taylor a journalist from the Pennsylvania Herald because we read his pieces, and he knows how to write. Let’s ask him to write an article to explain that.” While initially everything revolved around government relations, businesspeople gradually became aware of the necessity to be present in the public eye, not just through advertising. After all, America is the birthplace of advertising, and everything back then happened through advertising.

When the market got saturated with advertising, some businessmen figured,

“If that journalist writes an article about me, it will matter much more than advertising, plus I won’t have to pay anything. But how can I get that journalist to write that article? I need an expert to advise me on that.”

People who may have been involved in government propaganda may have advised such businesses one hundred years ago, but who knows? What would be discrediting is if, today, somebody wrote something deceitful. That’s hardly possible, though, because if anyone wrote something false on behalf of a business or a PR company, he or she would be devastated.

Nowadays, it’s just impossible not to react immediately.

Otherwise, you risk an avalanche coming your way, as in the case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the United Airlines dragging incident, or the already discussed Bell Pottinger affair. Of course, those are extreme cases, but Facebook and YouTube are filled with examples in which companies do not respond on time, do not respond at all, or are unprepared to react adequately. What are the results? They are destroyed. That is why the social media revolution in PR is the time to put a definitive end to this perception of public relations as a potential propaganda tool, even if 1 percent of the public still believes that. The possibility that someone would give you false information is already almost in the past due to the rise of consumer power and the fact that

companies, politicians, and public figures are constantly being “watched,”

and not only online. If you claimed that a pen is the best in the world because its ink can never be erased, some ten years ago, people would have believed you. Reporters would tail you and write, “Finally, a pen with completely impossible-to-erase ink has been invented.” Now, the moment you pull something like that, someone somewhere will erase that ink and start writing . . . against you.

Another example is Volkswagen and its greenhouse gas emissions. Every day, at least five companies worldwide probably go bankrupt because they have deceived their target audience and somebody exposed them. This is why corporate propaganda is virtually impossible today. You can still use propaganda if you are a politician and promise things. Yet, once the current political system collapses — which won’t be that far ahead into the future — politicians won’t be able to lie because they won’t have four-year terms. Why not hold direct elections of government officials on social media? For example, why not elect the secretary of energy in a competition of candidates who lay out their platforms on social media?

Sure, the prime minister or president is entitled to make their pick

and choose the person they are most comfortable with, but why don’t they pick the person who is assessed by the public on social media as having the best or most promising platform? Just as a board member is elected by shareholders, not the board's chairperson. The chairperson of the board is elected from among the board members. While critics would argue that nations are not corporations, the fact is that every nation’s primary goal should be to generate profits so its citizens can lead better lives.

The key word in politics shortly will be “pragmatism.”

— every politician will seek to win and fulfill elections with promises. Theoretically, choosing officials could happen on social media: they promise five things: a public contract with the voters who support them, and if they fail to achieve them in six months, they are gone. Such developments would make life far more accessible for the PR industry because one of its difficulties has been dealing with old-school-type politicians. The changes would lead more businesspeople into the Revolution 47 and the world of politics, and that would be very positive because they would need efficient PR experts, not just somebody to get paid and do nothing.

Politicians today have four years to find excuses and justifications. In contrast, a chairman of a board of directors in a large corporation listed on the stock exchange doesn’t even have half a day to explain himself or herself.

Not to mention any blunders such as sexual harassment claims, which would end you the second the information goes out to the public.

Take the famous Harvey Weinstein case. The widespread outburst of anger over the Hollywood producer would have been impossible without a platform to express it, such as social media. One angle that’s barely been considered concerning the Harvey Weinstein case and the entire #MeToo movement is that, among other things, it could also be seen as an act of revenge the US political elite took on Hollywood. Those two spheres of public influence seem like they never got along. And that’s not even mentioning Trump, who, in his ironic way, appears to have always despised Hollywood with its grand, self-standing personalities who are used to being admired, being given awards, and bathing in the love of the people.

Even the president of the United States didn’t come out of the #MeToo

movement unscathed. While the cause of the #MeToo movement is admirable, a more impassionate, neutral look at it could construe it as having generated many more negatives than positives, with its fixation on long-past events from twenty or thirty years ago and questionable circumstances. Even murderers sometimes get pardoned and get to walk free within the course of more extended periods. In this case, there has been the sharing of numerous stories, such as, “Thirty years ago in high school, a classmate tried to kiss me, and I didn’t let him, but I was the subject of sexual harassment.”

A critical look would require drawing the line and asking what #MeToo has achieved.

They are scaring a corporate employee out of considering whether to approach another. There have been broad updates to sexual harassment laws and corporate rules across companies to ensure that, whenever they are breached, the perpetrators get what they deserve. There has been a rather intriguing reaction in France, in which 100 prominent women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter warning that the movement would only make men more timid and inept. It would also be fair to point out that the movement made its cause vulnerable to attack by leaving a lot of doubts that, under the guise of a noble campaign, questionable circumstances from a distant past might be used now for personal revenge, to tarnish somebody, or to bring them down by people with ulterior motives. The myriad possible angles and viewpoints aside about its essence and cause and effect, the most prominent conclusion from the Harvey Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement once again underscore how social media have entirely reshaped PR and public communications.

In the era of traditional media, if a woman had gone to some newspaper with such accusations, the journalists might not even believe her and might refuse to publish her story. However, the increased opportunity for publicity, thanks to social media, makes such cases impossible to pay attention to.


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