Propaganda and the public: The enemy of the public interest that is hard to overcome

Posted by Aleksandra Hristov on May 24th, 2020 under Articles | 1 Comment »

The Hristov Consulting team is made of the consultants with many years of experience in the area of strategic communication and media.
The organizational culture of the firm is based on shared ethical work values that enable us to always provide to our clients, in their business and institutional endeavors, the unquestionable added value.
We are proud to announce the text authored by our senior consultant Ms. Gordana Lazarevic, recently published in the latest issue of “Novi Magazin“, titled

The most important fact, which is both the beginning and outcome of every discussion about propaganda, is that it is conflicting with journalism, equally incompatible with public relations, equally irreconcilable with marketing and promotion and most of all, that it is an enemy of the public good and society as a whole.
Propaganda is the systemic manipulation of people which intentionally pollutes facts, utters half-truths and spreads fake news. It does incorporate accurate information, but incompletely, chosen to validate the message of propaganda. There is no particular need to further remark on why this is harmful to the public’s interest, at the core of which lies the right for us to be correctly informed and to make decisions based on this information.
This should be the end of every discussion on propaganda, with a possible recollection of historical examples and an analysis of the harm it inflicts whenever utilised. As the scope of propaganda grew, so did its harmful effects. In today’s world, however, this does not end the story, as we don’t have that “happy ending”. We cannot say that we have learned from previous generations’ experience nor that we have grasped the moral within the situations we had witnessed ourselves.
CONSTRAINED CITIZENS: Of course, as in the past, the primary outlet for propaganda has been the media, which has changed and evolved, but the significance of this “utility” has remained constant. The reason for this is perfectly logical – the media is the fastest and most efficient way to spread messages. The only “catch” is that news outlets should not be allowed to do this since it is utterly contradictory with their central and most important mission – to provide the public with truthful, timely and complete information on all questions of public interest. This also means that their task should be to recognise propaganda and expose it. All of is because people should make decisions not based on intuition, but rather information and reason. Now, of course, there is no news outlet out there that does not claim to do just that, and as consumers of media, whether through our professions or as citizens, we chose whom we believe.
In Serbia today, the mood is such that most people would claim not to believe any outlet fully. Media outlets have lost the public’s trust for various reasons, and not only propaganda is to blame for this. A large amount, one could even say too large, of classic news outlets have encountered, due to the advent of social media, an extreme amount of competition, causing a great crisis in which they fight for survival in a non-journalistic fashion, with quantity rather than quality – a quantity of unprofessionally put-together articles and reports. And here we see fertile ground for propaganda. This crisis trickles down even to outlets that labour to serve their function professionally. They have fewer “followers” and therefore, less influence, smaller capacities and a limited reach. Their access to relevant sources is restrained, as well.
I’m afraid that at the moment, I’m in the defeatist camp, as I don’t see an escape out of this situation. Invoking self-regulation in media and or personal ethics of journalists seems to me like a fight with an immortal and armed-to-the-teeth robot against an inept kid armed with only a pure conscience. On the other hand, one can’t remain silent lest they become an accessory, or even the one guilty of the murder of truth. This applies, I have to emphasise, especially to people working in public relations, whether in agencies, companies, organisations or institutions.
PROPAGANDISTS VS. THE MEDIA: I don’t know exactly when, but certainly more than a decade ago, when I was still working in journalism, there came a moment when so-called PRs started to intensively work toward dictating the news to media outlets. I am not saying that this had never happened before, but it seemed to be on a whole different level. We were suddenly getting all these requests and pressure on journalists to “integrally” publish what they had sent or said. They also started “defending” their clients by breaking off all contact with journalists or only speaking to select ones, over whom they had some control.
By a significant margin, most PRs at the time did their job incorrectly. What we had wasn’t “public relations” work guided by ethics or professionality. I had the impression that all this wasn’t done by PRs but by the executors of their clients’ bidding. Instead of representing a bridge between the media and the public on one hand, and their clients on the other, they represented a gigantic ramp that is raised only for some. And when it is raised, they tightly control what can and cannot pass through – and there is no guarantee that what does pass is truthful and complete information. Among their clients, the role of the PR was also understood and accepted in completely the wrong way – as a marketing tool even for falsities, packaged as sparse announcements or addresses in bought time-spaces of electronic media, with already formulated “appropriate” questions. Of course, not all PRs or their clients acted in this way. The dominant impression was, however, that this was the “business model” of the majority. As time passed, nothing had improved.
Many people presenting themselves as PRs work as “propagandists” (I am not sure if this word exists on any list of professions). Their arsenal of weapons is getting larger, but all of it mostly comes down to finances, on which, of course, all news outlets rely. And yes, I do think that this model is entirely OPPOSED to the media and entirely OPPOSED to the public’s interests. I am also certain that we, as a society, are paying the price for the propaganda we view, listen to or read, but I sure as well that we are yet to pay the full price. Here lies my curiosity, will we as a society be able to at some point recognise this or will we be so manipulated and “overfed” that we’ll haul propaganda around with us forever? That said, I’m unsure as to whether I, even with my tenure in media and information, always recognise propaganda.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS: Though I see no escape, I still harbour some hope. It is personified by the part of society that performs their work professionally, whatever that work may be. Such people exist, to be sure, both in journalism and in PR. To be precise, in PR, my line of work, for every door we need opened, we use the truth, verified and complete information as keys. We build the reputation of our clients on their actions, but also the insistence on always laying out the full truth and standing by everything released to the public. We will advise them on how to address the public, we will help them be available, we will answer every question from journalists, but we will not allow the “bending” of the truth to their detriment, nor their benefit. We will fight so that the media receive information on our clients because it is reliable and important to the public interest, not because it is paid for or “whitewashed”.
The previous paragraph may seem to many as an advertisement, in which we claim to be better than others. No, this is not my goal. I believe this is how all skilled PRs work. Furthermore, those who truly need the services of a genuine PR look for and can find one here and all over the world. The question lies in when to “secede” from the “propagandists” and propaganda, and this is a question both for the media and PR. I’m afraid that, as of yet, no such answer exists, neither domestically or globally.
Gordana Lazarević
The author is a consultant at Hristov Consulting.

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