What’s Behind Public Diplomacy’s Uncritical Dismissal of Public Relations?

It’s hard to think of a more despised social institution than public relations.

So it’s not at all surprising to see the explicit rejection of public relations by some prominent public diplomats. Joseph Duffey, the director of the USIA (United States Information Agency) under Bill Clinton, dismissed the idea that public diplomacy had anything to do with with public relations:

Let me just say a word about public diplomacy. It is not public relations. It is not flakking for a Government agency or even flakking for America. It Is trying to relate beyond government-to-government relationships the private Institutions, the individuals, the long-term contact, the accurate understanding, the full range of perceptions of America to the rest of the world. (Quoted in N. Snow, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. London & NY: Routledge, 2009.

Mr. Duffey is not the first or most virulent critic of public relations. Noam Chomsky, one of the most widely read critics of public relations and U.S. foreign policy, has written reams about “media control” and “the engineering of consent,” a term coined by Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations. In l961, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, wrote a withering deconstruction of public relations as the dark art of staging “pseudo events”. But perhaps the most effective critics of PR do so unwittingly. They’re the public relations scholars and professors who continue to report that public relations began with P.T. Barnum, the charlatan and circus showman whose summed up his philosophy with the oft-quoted line that there’s a sucker born every minute.

At the risk of going overboard with an apologia for public relations, I should point out that its theorists, scholars and practitioners have included Aristotle, St. Paul and the popes who created the Congregation de Propaganda fide (Organization to propagate the faith) during the Catholic Reformation, when the new-new thing was insurgent Protestantism. In truth, it is impossible to sever public relations from Aristotelian rhetoric, Pauline Christianity, the papal patronage of Michelangelo and Bernini, the ecstacy of St Teresa, the fugues of Bach, and the architecture of the Sistine Chapel. Whatever other associations public relations has, it is most certainly in league with the beautiful and the visceral.

Of course, it is also impossible to sever public relations from the propaganda machines of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, not to mention the propaganda techniques of their enemies. In this sense, then, public relations must be regarded as paradoxical as well as amoral. Paradoxical because it is so closely allied not only with what we may approve of — argument, debate and persuasion, all of which has been shown to flourish in in democracies but perish under tyranny. Public relations is amoral because it can and has been used for good and evil, which motivated Hiter’s Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, to make an unsuccessful attempt to hire Bernays, a founder of modern public relations, to help engineer consent for Nazism among the German masses of the l920s. Despite Bernays changing the name of his agency from a propaganda bureau to a public relations counsel at the end of the l920s, he was never able to rebrand PR as some sort of pro-democratic, innovative engineering. And during the decades that followed, PR’s propaganda problem grew immeasurably worse with the blood-soaked propaganda of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. But what of public diplomacy?

Even a cursory examination of the history of public diplomacy reveals that it, too, has a propaganda problem, although some public diplomats prefer to frame it as a public relations problem. Are they then not sisters under the skin, PR and public diplomacy? They do appear to share a common problem: They’re misunderstood. But why should this be?

History – even fairly recent history –  furnishes a clue. For one thing, both public relations and public diplomacy claim to have “evolved,” which means both PR and public diplomacy claims to have shed their dark side and improved upon themselves. In the case of public relations, its so-called “evolution” is reported in PR textbooks to have “evolved” not only beyond fakery, but even persuasion. (I prefer to call the apparent changes in public relations “adjustments,” a more common sensical, less pretentiously pseudo-scientific term.)

For the previous generation, the dominant theory of public relations, propounded by its leading scholars, is that “excellent” public relations is “ethical” public relations. Numerous quantitative studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, which purport to demonstrate the statistical reliability of this dubious equation. A score of PR textbooks advances this dubious correlation of excellence and ethics, despite its seriously flawed historiography and its soothing reassurance that, like some single-celled creature, public relations has managed to “evolve” from something bad to something good —  from an unethical morass to a sophisticated, pro-social institution. The term for PR’s evolved, enlightened ethical condition is “symmetrical,” an attempt to apply an anciently rooted theory of ethics mentioned by Epicurus and Cicero. The uncritical belief of academic PR is that it has “evolved” from a-symmetrical to symmetrical. It isn’t a scientifically testable proposition,but rather a political belief akin to liberal progressivism, the notion common in nineteenth century America that mankind and society were moving ever forward, like the stunning innovations of the industrial revolution.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment of PR’s history, me included. (See Jacquie L’etang, Public Relations. Los Angeles, London: 2008, Sage, p. 257). For one thing, the theory of symmetry is rooted in a strangely unhistorical concept of history – one which argues that public relations sprang into existence in mid-nineteenth century America. It just isn’t so. Even PR pioneer Ed Bernays traced PR’s roots back to antiquity. And the defense of that argument – that what is meant by “public relations” is only modern public relations – is simply unpersuasive on many levels. What is “modern” and why should modernity begin in the American Midwest with a circus showman named Barnum? However, if you felt ambivalent about public relations and were attempting to construct  a straw man in order to knock him down in the name of “symmetry”, then you could do worse than tap that old rogue, P.T. Barnum.

Among the legions who dismiss the symmetry theory of public relations are pragmatic, results-driven practitioners of public relations whose job it is to launch campaigns that influence, persuade and motivate.

Little wonder, then, that public relations has been characterized by critically minded historians such as Ray Hiebert, the biographer of Ivy Lee, a twentieth century “father” of public relations,  as a divided institution.

Lately, however, something has happened to shake up the stale PR argument over ethics vs. manipulation: the explosion of social media. The digital age has utterly altered the shape of the argument. What matters most in the era of Facebook and Twitter is now not so much persuasion, excellence or ethics. What counts now is what is commonly called “the conversation” that digitization permits to occur  between anyone and everyone. In the l920s, the model of influence ran downhill from the elite cognoscenti to the ignorant masses. Today, it appears that this model has been turned on its head: In the age of user-generated content, influence, unlike water, can run uphill. Public Relations has entered the age of Me. Traditional tactics of influence — broadcasting, pitching and selling — are increasingly scorned as hopelessly Old School by the new gurus of public relations such as Brian Solis, author of a popular blog called PR 2.0

The literati are dead! Long live the technorati!

At least, that is the newly emerged paradigm of public relations in the age of digital influence. IBM has launched a TV campaign whose theme is Stop talking!

Listening and looking have achieved hegemony with iPod, Google, Photoshop and YouTube. We have entered a new Visual Age, an era which tallies up “eyeballs” and  seduces us with video streams.  And while in some quarters, the word has gone out that PR is dead, I would have to disagree. PR isn’t dead — it’s in love. In love with unique views and links, and it can’t wait to unwrap Web 3.0.

PR has done what it has always done, since long before P.T. Barnum and America and the Catholic propagandio and the persuasive letters of St Paul to the first century Ephesians.  PR has has adjusted and emerged as PR 2.0.  So much for public relations as a simple matter of flakking and spinmeisters. Those days are waning, if not ended. The U.S. has elected its first digitally sophisticated president, addicted to his Blackberry and proud of his l3 million Facebook friends.

But what of public diplomacy? Has it undergone its own adjustment? Apparently so.

Not only has public diplomacy changed, it has adjusted in ways that bear a striking similarity to the adjustments of public relations. For one thing, public diplomacy and public relations are, in the words of the apostle of “soft power,” Joseph Nye, “linked to power”. Soft power – among the most quoted phrases in contemporary diplomacy – is “based on intangible or indirect influences such as culture, values, and ideology,” according to Nye. (http: http://www.wordspy.com; quoted in Snow (2009), p. 3). Those attributes could describe much of the soft power of public relations. For another thing, public diplomacy – like public relations – is beset by a fundamental disagreement about how to frame its definition, strategies and purpose. One side holds that the whole point of public diplomacy has always been, and should always be, to sell the story of the U.S. to foreign allies and adversaries. This was the philosophy of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs in the G.W. Bush administration during the period immediately follow 9-11. An apostle of Old School advertising and marketing, Beers’ claim to fame included success as the brand manager of Uncle Ben’s Rice. She had much less success selling America to the Muslim world.

Following Beers’ brief tenure in public diplomacy came Karen Hughes, a fierce partisan of then-President G.W. Bush. Hughes’ strategy was widely was reported as “listening,” an apparently softer sell than the Beers approach, but nevertheless, a sell. Hughes launched a series of “listening tours” throughout the Middle East, where the reputation of the United States had plunged to perilously low levels after the Bush administration’s engagement in preemptive war, prisoner torture and adamant bellicosity. For Nancy Snow, once a professional public diplomat and now a scholar of public diplomacy, the U.S. must shift public diplomacy from “telling America’s story to the world” to “sharing values, hopes, dreams, and comment respect.” (Snow, p. 5).

And yet, “shared values” was the term used to describe the strategy of brand-conscious Charlotte Beers. It would appear that no matter whether the approach was framed as “listening” or “sharing values,” it was generally perceived as propaganda. It is worth noting that one of the oldest adages in public relations is that perception is reality – a supremely asymmetrical concept.

Today, there’s a sharp division of opinion in the public diplomacy community, according to Snow. She identifies two schools, reminiscent of William James’ taxonomy of people as either “tender minded” or “tough minded”. In public diplomacy, tender minded public diplomacy focuses on “people 2 people” and “government 2 people”. The tough minded strategy emphasizes “insight and influence, anywhere, anytime” (Snow, p. 9).

Just as the public relations world has been divided by the tough and tender minds of persuasion and symmetrical fairness, so the public diplomacy universe is riven by a similar clash of sensibilities. Yet few public diplomats on either side of the divide would openly embrace public relations. “Public diplomacy is not PR,” wrote Price Floyd, a public diplomacy specialist with the U.S. State Department. (Quoted by Snow, Los Angeles Times, op ed, Nov. l7, 2007).

But is that really so? Is public diplomacy all that different from public relations? After all, strategically speaking, both are historically and philosophically traceable to rhetorical foundations. Both are concerned with power.

Snow lands on the slippery slope of the PR symmetry theorists when she argues that “poor public diplomacy sells more than tells”.  Her distinction begs the question of public diplomacy, as it  frames public diplomacy as PR symmetry theorists have framed: as progressive and evolutionary. It is difficult not to see such a conclusion as self-serving.

From the perspective of a critical-thinking intellectual historian, public relations and public diplomacy appear to have a lot more in common than they have differences. Furthermore, while their similarities are substantial, their differences are more stylistic, if not trivial. In the endm, what makes for effective public relations is, after all, what makes for effective public diplomacy: a finely tuned ear to public opinion and the communication skills to frame issues so clearly, cogently and sensitively that it results in a significant shift in public opinion.

rbrown@salemstate.edu; rebrown@fas.harvard.edu Member, Editorial Board, Public Relations Review (Elsevier Publishers)



Filed under Political Communication, Public Relations, Uncategorized

2 responses to “What’s Behind Public Diplomacy’s Uncritical Dismissal of Public Relations?

  1. Had the pleasure of citing your article in my “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review” at

  2. Robert Brown

    Re: The citation in the public diplomacy blog:
    It’s always a pleasure to discover a similar sensibility within a broad community of interests. My take on public relations, published in the Public Relations Review (Elsevier), is historical and critical, and very likely marginal. But I’ve always been interested in the margins, in what’s next, what’s outside the proverbial box.

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