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Propaganda and Public Diplomacy -Friends or Foes

by on April 22, 2012

G. R. Berridge defines propaganda as “the manipulation of public opinion through the mass media for political ends” (Berridge, 2010: 179). The term propaganda itself is associated with all things evil; Lord Ponsoby wrote in 1926 that it means “the defilement of the human soul [which] is worse that the destruction of the human body” (cited in Taylor, 2003: 1).

However, David Welch and Phillip Taylor both argue that when looked in the historical perspective, propaganda is “a good word gone wrong” (Taylor, 2003: 2). The word has its historical roots in the Vatican and a commission called ‘Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith’ established to counter the Protestant Reformation (Ibid: 2-3, Welch, 2003: xvi). It was only with the two World Wars, and the way propaganda was then utilised, that the term received its permanent evil status.

Historical propaganda posters and the video underneath should emphasize the problematic war propaganda!

Taylor further argues that:

Before 1914, propaganda simply meant the means by which the converted attempted to persuade the unconverted. The converted were, and are, not necessarily nasty people with nasty ideas; nor were, or are, the unconverted particularly unreceptive or resistant to what they are told (Taylor, 2003: 4).

There is much dispute over the exact relationship between public diplomacy and propaganda. For some, including Berridge, the two are synonyms or more precisely the former is merely a euphemism for the latter (Berridge, 2010:179). He argues that: “public diplomacy is a new style of propaganda” (Ibid. 182). However, funnily, many proponents of public diplomacy debate whether public diplomacy “should employ propagandistic techniques” (Kelley, 2008: 75). This stance then makes propaganda a mere method of public diplomacy. Then, there are the likes of R. S. Zaharna, who firmly believe in the mutual exclusiveness of the two practices, for her secrecy and deception starkly contrast open communication (see Ibid.).

The following spectrum, could be utilised to demonstrate the relationship between propaganda and public diplomacy, it aims to simplify the essence of the practice:

At its most basic at one end of the spectrum, we can find propaganda and at the other public diplomacy, but even then the question remains where exactly does one thing change to the other, or where does bad end and good begin?

To make matters more complicated, the spectrum could simply reflect public diplomacy (or propaganda) alone with the shift from the good practice to the more questionable. To cite Berridge: “[propaganda] might be more or less honest, more or less subtle, and sometimes directed more at achieving long-term, rather than short term, changes in opinion, or both” (Berridge, 2010:179). Keeping in mind that for Berridge public diplomacy is propaganda, if one was to change the word propaganda to public diplomacy from the quote above, well I think you already know where I’m heading…

John Brown argues that the only way to truly differentiate propaganda and public diplomacy, since they share elements, is to “examine public diplomacy at its best and propaganda as its worst” (Brown, 2008). His full analysis can be found here. This view could help to explain why, at times of war and major crisis, even the most harmless public diplomacy efforts resemble propaganda, since there would be little difference between public diplomacy at its worst and propaganda at its best. Of course, at times of crisis propaganda at its worst would most certainly also emerge as history has endorsed time after time.

In conclusion, I still refuse to accept that all public diplomacy is propaganda, since there are aspects, such as the building of lasting relations, that do not fit neatly into the realm of propaganda. However, I must admit that I am now slightly confused with my perceptions on propaganda.


Berridge, G. R. (2010) Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 4th Edn. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Brown, J. (2008) ‘Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences’ available at: (accessed 22.04.2012)

Kelley, J. R. ‘Between “Take-offs” and “Crash Landings”’ in Snow, N. and Taylor, P. M. (2008) Routledge handbook of public diplomacy. New York: Routledge Ltd.

Taylor, P. (2003) Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Welch, D. ‘Introduction: Propaganda in Historical Perspective’ in Cull, N. J. (2003) Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO


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One Comment
  1. isabelletreat permalink

    I really liked your post on this very, very contentious topic – I don’t think there ever will be agreement amongst practitioners and academics and you reflect this disagreement very well in analysing different authors’ stands on the issue. I, too, found Brown’s piece very helpful with regard to looking at the two extreme spectrums of each practice to point out their differences.
    Further, what I found very helpful in tackling this issue was the idea of seeing public diplomacy at its best as the evolving ‘new public diplomacy’. If public diplomacy efforts indeed manage to learn all the lessons from its past, as outlined by Cull ( and to put them into practice, then I would truly dare to argue that public diplomacy has evolved from its propaganda roots in such a fashion that it can no longer be credibly argued that they are still the same today 🙂

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