Skip to content

Propaganda v. Public Diplomacy …. ‘We’re just misunderstood…’

by on April 10, 2012





“To inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of (own) national interest”; propaganda or public diplomacy?




There is a great deal discussion surrounding public diplomacy and propaganda; some think the two are essentially one and the same, whilst others are of the opinion that they are entirely different. I stand with the former belief and with this blog I hope to expl

ain why. The term ‘public diplomacy’ was coined by an American ambassador – an important point – and dean at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in America, Edmund Gullion, in the mid 1960’s. When describing public diplomacy, Gullion stated:

Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it “propaganda.” It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure in

terpretation of the word to what we were doing. But “propaganda” has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon “public diplomacy” (Delaney, et al.).

This statement plainly intimates that public diplomacy was created as a euphemism for propaganda, as the word propaganda always has negative connotations attached. This information is essential as it relates to the birth of the term ‘public diplomacy’ and the reasons behind it. Need I go any further?…oh ok then!

Gullion and other public diplomacy ‘experts’ cite ‘interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders’ using a ‘whole range of communications, information’, as two of the principal differences between public diplomacy and propaganda. With some emphasising the vast array of media outlets today, particularly the web, as being something propaganda cannot endure. There is then the argument that public diplomacy, as opposed to propaganda is a two way street, it is as much about listening as it is about telling…sorry ‘informing’. I find the notion of the web being perceived as a hindrance to propaganda particularly baffling; immediate access to the global online community at a cost of pittance has to be an advantage for the purposes of propaganda. Yes people have access to information which may counter the original message at their fingertips, but how many of them, particularly the general (non-academic) public go looking for it? I can give a recent example to illustrate this point with two words: Kony 2012.

As regards the argument, public diplomacy entails listening to its audience, in contrast to propaganda. It should be made abundantly clear that listening, when undertaken for the purposes of public diplomacy, is not done with the intention of re-assessing foreign policies should it be found that theyImage may be unsuitable. Listening is purely for the purposes of fine tuning the message to ensure it will be well received. In other words it’s a case of ‘we’re not getting our message across here, we’re gonna have to try it again, but this time say it a little louder, using different words and lots of pretty pictures, and get someone more palatable to the people we are trying to convince to say it.’ In Steven Curtis and Caroline Jaine’s paper: ‘Public Diplomacy at Home in the UK’, when discussing the outreach efforts of the FCO to the Diaspora communities in the UK they state: ‘There is also the possibility that such encounters can shape how foreign policy is presented in the future. But another balancing act is in managing the expectation of audiences who air grievances that their input may lead to policy change’ (Curtis, et al., 2012).

In reference to the array of communications used in public diplomacy, which is said to be something propaganda cannot endure; this can be cross-referenced with the propaganda strategies employed during the Cold-War.  The perfect way to test this theory is to compare the tactics employed in the Middle East throughout the war against Communism during the Cold-war, and Bush’s subsequent ‘war on terror’. During the Cold-war the tools used for propaganda  ‘… included financial assistance, pamphlets and posters, news manipulation, magazines, radio broadcasts, books, libraries, music, movies, cartoons, educational activities, person-to-person exchanges, and, of great significance for the Middle East, religion. Information could also be placed with American media outletsImage for playback in the region’ (Battle, 2002); these tools are the very same tools used today in public diplomacy. The strategies used during the ‘war on terror’, which employed the tactic of ‘winning the hearts and minds of the people’,  an idea borne from the Bush administrations beliefs that “a deep misunderstanding of the United States and its policies”[1] existed in the Middle East, are very similar to those used during the Cold-war.

However, the actions and policies during the war on Communism are described as propaganda whilst the actions and policies with regards to the ‘war on terror’ are described as public diplomacy. I would love to elaborate further on this however I would end up writing an essay rather than a blog. Instead I would like to direct you to a 2002 article on the matter from the National Security Archive’s entitled U.S. Propaganda in the Middle East – The Early Cold War Version, which examines declassified documents in its research. Also see and Finally to see the news coverage on the war in Iraq, and how the war was presented globally including in the U.S., U.K. and Abu Dhabi as well as on Sky news, check out this link, it really is extremely interesting: .


We must stop thinking of propaganda in 1950’s Cold-War terms, the world has advanced becoming significantly more sophisticated since then, in all fields, including propaganda.

The very term public diplomacy I would argue is propaganda in its finest form. It, I believe, is attempting to distort the notion of propaganda and how we see it. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ (or as foul in this case).Image


Battle, J. 2002. U.S. Propaganda in the Middle East – The Early Cold War Version. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 78. [Online] The George Washington University, 13 December 2002. [Cited: 2 April 2012.]

Curtis, J and Jaine, C. 2012. Public Diplomacy at Home in the UK: Engaging Diasporas and Preventing Terrorism. 2012.

Delaney, Robert F. and Gibson, John S. , editors. AmericanMedford Mass: The Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, The Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs, 1967. American Public Diplomacy: The Perspective of Fifty Years; p. 31.

Further reading

This is a particularly interesting website to look at is it public diplomacy or simple propaganda?


From → Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. mimi001 permalink

    Hi, a very informative and convincing post. However, you concentrate mainly on war time efforts, which for obvious reasons have elements of propaganda. Thus, I personally believe that most likely when public diplomacy related to matters of war it easily turns to mere propaganda, but not all public diplomacy efforts are of this nature.

    For example both cultural diplomacy and nation branding have been linked to public diplomacy, the exact relationship seems to depend on the author. Efforts such as boosting tourism through diplomatic means or promoting local food (gastro-diplomacy) do not appear as propaganda to me! Or am I just being too naive to see what hides beneath the surface?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: