Propaganda is often associated with dictatorships. However in a ‘free society’, where official bans on free speech are not tolerated, it is more necessary for those who would rule to use subtle means to silence threatening ideas and suppress inconvenient facts. Public relations and propaganda play a “more covert and sophisticated role” in technologically advanced democratic countries “where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion”. These activities are most advanced in the United States where advertising and manipulation of public opinion has been researched and practiced more than anywhere else.
Early public relations experts were not afraid to use the term propaganda to describe what they did. For example, George Fitzpatrick, thought to be the first Australian PR professional, was listed in the Sydney telephone directory before the second World War as “Registered practitioner in Public persuasion, propaganda, publicity.”
Alex Carey, author of Taking the Risk out of Democracy, defines propaganda as being communications aimed at getting a target audience to adopt particular attitudes and beliefs. Nowadays such activities are referred to as public relations although even that term is becoming tarnished and some practitioners prefer to refer to their jobs using labels such as public affairs, corporate communications, media relations, issues management or even public education. However the aims have not changed.
Propaganda aims to “persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate, but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions.”
There are a number of basic propaganda techniques identified by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, many of which are used in public relations. Two examples of these are name calling and glittering generalities.
Name calling involves labelling an idea or groups of people so as to get others to reject them or treat them negatively without evidence being put to support such a label. For example labelling radical environmentalists as ‘ecoterrorists’ or environmental ideas as ‘communist inspired’. Alternatively, negatively charged words like ‘coercion,’ ‘waste’ or ‘radical’ are used to describe an idea.
A classic name calling device used against residents protesting the siting of an unwanted facility in their neighbourhood is to call them NIMBY’s - Not In My Back Yard and thereby label them as merely self-interested. A newer acronym used against environmental activists is Going BANANA - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.
Such labels not only seek to harm the reputation and therefore the effectiveness of opponents but they also “may convince local citizens, who fear being stigmatized, to refrain from asking any questions. Moreover, labelling long-time residents and neighbours who pose questions makes them appear as outsiders, lacking authority, and easy to marginalise.”
Glittering generalities involve the use of “vague, abstract, positive terms” such as ‘common sense’, ‘commitment’, ‘democracy’, ‘scientific’ to win approval for something without recourse to any evidence. It is the reverse of name calling. For example, the identification of the market with ‘freedom of choice’ and polluting activities with ‘job creation’.
Labelling and stereotyping is part of the art of propaganda which works at a subconscious level through symbols and dichotomies of good and evil, sacred and the satanic. Terms such as the American Way of Life come to symbolise the sacred and propaganda seeks to associate ideas such as free enterprise with the American Way of Life whilst labels such as communist and radical are used to conjure up notions of evil and threats to the American Way of Life.
In an article on the internet from Public Relations Management Ltd, those doing battle with environmentalists are advised to “find symbols around which to wrap the message... The value and power of symbols can’t be over stated”. Symbols suggested include “more government, higher taxes, lost jobs, ghost towns, abandoned farmers, less individual freedom, family breakdowns, disintegrating social values”.
In Newt Gingrich’s pamphlet Language, A Key Mechanism of Control he advises Republican candidates to use “positive, governing words” for themselves and negative words for their opponents and he gives lists of such words. Positive words include: challenge, choice, dream, family, hard work, incentive, initiative, pride, reform, vision etc. Name calling words include: betray, collapse, crisis, decay, endanger, greed, hypocrisy, incompetent, self-serving, shallow etc.
Other techniques include: