Public Relations vs. Propaganda

June 4, 2013

In more than 20 years of business, I have never had a client ask me to cover up the truth.  If one did ask, I would walk away.  Dishonesty is not only morally wrong, it’s almost always disastrous for the client.

But public relations as practiced in politics is far different from public relations practiced by those of us in the real world.  While public affairs practitioners and lobbyists attempt to influence behavior, as do public relations practitioners in the private sector, the moral boundaries seem far broader in the political world.

The Benghazi Talking Points

Benghazi is a case in point.  We may never know the full story behind this tragedy, which left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, but it’s clear that politics trumped doing the right thing, as it frequently does with our current President.

Here’s what we do know.  Requests for support were ignored, then when it was clear that the U.S. embassy was under attack by terrorists, we sent no help, allegedly under the assumption that it would be too late by the time help arrived.  This see-no-evil approach is consistent with President Obama’s strategy of fighting the war on terror by pretending that we’ve won the war.

Then there were the Benghazi talking points.  As public relations professionals, we try to take great care in developing talking points for clients that summarize the message we’re trying to convey.  Talking points should present the strongest support possible for a client’s message, but they should be based on fact, not fiction.

In the case of Benghazi, the President’s team claimed the attack resulted from the anti-Islamic video, “Innocence of Muslims,” which soon after was revealed to be a fabrication.

So it appears that four people died needlessly and we were all lied to in an attempt to pretend that terrorism no longer exists.

The Planted Question

Then there’s the case of the Internal Revenue Service harassing conservative groups and delaying their applications for non-profit status (the Barack H. Obama Foundation’s application sailed through in a month).

In an apparent attempt to manipulate the news, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS’ tax-exempt organizations division, planted a questioner in the audience to ask a prearranged question about the IRS’ actions at a meeting of the American Bar Association’s Tax Section’s Exempt Organizations Committee.  She blamed the actions on underlings in the Cincinnati office of the IRS.

Of course, Ms. Lerner’s ploy only served to make the IRS actions even bigger news than they otherwise would have been.

That sometimes happens when propaganda is used in a democracy.



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