Public Relations vs. propaganda – what’s the difference?

While tracking the latest news from the political world back at home (I’m Polish if I haven’t mentioned, cześć!), I’ve spotted something very disturbing. Something that made clear to me where PR gets its bad reputation from…and showed how Public Relations’ potential gets wasted.

By the way, ironic, isn’t it? That an industry all about building and manipulating of image suffers from an image problem itself.

But lets go back to that something…

Polish politicians very loosely use the term “Public Relations”, not explaining what they actually mean by that. They ACCUSE each other of “doing PR” and pulling public opinion’s leg…

They talk about you in the media – that must mean you “do PR.” You turn your attention away from uncomfortable topics, publicizing issues less troublesome instead – note, this is PR! Rather than take offence at an opponent, you give him a hand – you’re up to something “in the PR style.”

PR in Poland began to live its own, false life… and my heart sinks.Because what those people accuse each other of has nothing to do with Public Relations. In fact, I do not think that Polish government, political  parties or individuals on the political arena have any PR strategies for themselves at all…or any idea as to how Public Relations works. What they accuse each other of is propaganda, not PR.

What’s more, following the results of my little research I can easily jump to conclusion that Public Relations in Poland is purely marketing and business focused…which basically means there’s no real PR in Poland. What a waste of potential…

But let’s go back to our PRopaganda.

It’s actually quite difficult to put a pin between PR and propaganda in theory – dictionaries’ and textbooks’ definitions are quite similar:

Propaganda is the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.
Jowett and O’Donnell (1992:4)


Public Relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding between an organisation and its publics.

UK Institute of Public Relations, 1987


Indeed, there are similarities between the two practices. The above definitions highlight how both, propaganda and Public Relations have the same purpose – to influence public perception in order to generate a desired response.

Like propaganda, PR is systematic, serves to achieve set goals and involves management of perceptions. Both models use various media platforms to reach different audiences. The difference lies in intentions and motivation in their usage.

Although PR and propaganda share the same objective and often share same techniques of delivering a message, there is a difference

Propaganda is often used to damage an opposing cause, organisation or individual. The information it uses very often isn’t based on truth. Delivering false information or twisting facts to influence the public’s attitude toward a cause, an idea or, usually, a political agenda falls under the definition of propaganda. Propaganda is generally an appeal to emotion, not intellect. E.g. Political campaign ads designed to attack an opponent.

PR, on the other hand, regards truth as important and is usually used to present truthful information in a positive light. E.g.When an organization is facing a controversy, a PR campaign may be put together in order to address the issue and restore the company’s reputation.

In support of my words, ladies and gentleman, CIPR’s list of values:

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 19.04.40


Both PR and propaganda are extremely powerful tools. Although their definitions are similar, the practices differ and the difference lies in their relationship to truth.

Public Relations isn’t well understood by many, including PR practitioners and their clients. That’s why it is important that values, like the ones of CIPR, lie in the core of the practice. Otherwise PR stops being PR and becomes what Polish politicians accuse each other of doing – propaganda.




7 thoughts on “Public Relations vs. propaganda – what’s the difference?

Add yours

  1. So true Natalia! Everyone seems to be confusing PR for propaganda and it makes our job so much harder! Let’s hope the Polish Government learns about the true role of PR soon so they can stop giving us professionals a bad name!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A politician or political staffer referring to themselves as a PR person or something similar (communications specialist, political technologist, etc) is an application of one of the principles of PR – if your brand name has a bad reputation, change the name. Propaganda is associated with helping the Nazis rise to power. Whether true or not, the bad reputation exists. Thus, Edward Bernays (who many consider the founder of PR in the business world) created the name Public Relations in order to avoid those negative connotations. People who work in the field of Public Relations are indeed propagandists. Some work for business, some for politicians. I’m sure a PR specialist would find words that spin this truth in a way more favorable to them and their profession, however. Don’t be fooled.


    1. I understand. But then again, we would have to raise a discussion on propaganda itself. The word ‘propaganda’ has a very negative overtone, despite the fact, that is isn’t always a bad thing. There are black propaganda (helping Natzi rise to power/or more recent Trump election campaign), grey propaganda and then there is white propaganda (the most common type), which is a gentle persuasion truthfully stating its origin – comings from an identified source.White propaganda is indeed what PR practitioners do. It’s about persuasion, but not with lies, ‘alternative facts’ and fake news. This is how it should be done. This is why PRs have professional bodies, like CIPR or PRCA, which outline guidelines for practitioners to do their job the best, most ethically they possibly can.


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