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‘Re-branding’ propaganda :)

by on May 3, 2012

Having focused on the new developments and novel concepts associated with the new public diplomacy in my earlier blogs, it feels like coming full circle by addressing one of the oldest and still most contentious issues associated with public diplomacy: Is it simply a euphemism for propaganda, designed to invoke more positive associates by changing a name but keeping the same practice?

The term ‘propaganda’ can be traced back to 1622 and is linked to the Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith established by Pope Gregory XV. Much like now, the aim of this initiative was to “convince large numbers of people about the veracity of a given set of ideas.” Yet, the term propaganda is now bound to leave a particularly bitter aftertaste for it has become increasingly associated with the attempts to demonise enemies and spread politically calculated lies of the German Nazi regime or First World War and Cold War propaganda campaigns.[1]

Is public diplomacy thus simply a clever euphemism for the very same activity, trying to shake off the negative images associated with it by changing but the label? Seeing that Gullion, who coined the term public diplomacy, implies as much,[2] and that both concepts are inherently difficult to define there is a certain logic in arguing that they are indeed the same. Both are intended to influence public opinion, neither is altruistic, designed to serve a certain country’s interest, and both can achieve credibility, as Brown argues.

Yet, he goes on to establish, that, in their most extreme varieties, they differ significantly in terms of the methods they employ. While propaganda “at its worst” will force its messages on an audience, will engage in demonization of the other and glorification of the self and will not shy away from distorting the truth to the extent of lying, public diplomacy “at its best” will attempt to explain foreign policy objectives in a factual and honest way and will encourage mutual understanding by listening.

Kruckeberg and Vujnovic also particularly highlight two-way communication as being part of the ideal form of public diplomacy[3] which makes it fundamentally different from propaganda, which, in all it varieties, from white to black propaganda, is focused solely on transmitting a predetermined message to an audience.

Accordingly, we can concede that originally, public diplomacy may indeed just have been a new way of dressing a concept which is “as old as people, politics and religion.” Their ultimate aim, too, may be the same. Yet, as the concept of public diplomacy has evolved from its 1965 roots and learned some of the lessons discussed in previous posts and outlined with unparalleled precision by Cull,[4] it moved closer to its “best”, according to Brown, and further away from its communalities with propaganda.

Yet, in the light of the controversy surrounding a clip by the Chinese state TV channel supposedly showing footage of a Chinese fighter jet which was then revealed to be taken directly from the movie ‘Top Gun’, some countries still seem inclined to sometimes slide back into old habits of propaganda and half-truths and it is difficult to draw the line between where bad public diplomacy might end and propaganda might begin. It can therefore be expected that this controversial question will continue to cause debate.


[1] Lilleker, Darren G., Key Concepts in Political Communication (London: Sage Publications, 2006), p.163

[2] Berridge, G.R. (2010) Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 4th ed., Palgrave, Basingstoke

[3] Kruckeberg, Dean and Vujnovic, Marina, ‘Public Relations, Not Propaganda, for US Public Diplomacy in a Post-9/11 World: Challenges and Opportunities”, Journal of Communication Management, 9.4 (2005), 296-304, p.302

[4] Cull, Nicholas J., ‘Public Diplomacy: Seven Lessons For its Future from its Past’, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 6.1 (2010), 11-17

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One Comment
  1. isabelletreat permalink

    Geeeeez, those wordpress blogs are killing me – I thought I had posted this ages ago, but, again, it just posted on my own blog… ah well 🙂 here it goes now!

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