What is propaganda? 

7 minute read

What is propaganda? 

Propaganda is a persuasive technique used to manipulate or influence individuals to adopt a particular opinion or belief. It has been used by governments, corporations, religious groups, the media, and individuals around the world for centuries. Propaganda is not limited to a single medium. It can be found in artwork, films, speeches, music, memes, and more.

Biased information and half-truths are presented in a way that furthers a particular agenda, whether that’s political, religious, financial, or otherwise. Propaganda works to manipulate people into believing that this misappropriated information is fact. The best forms of propaganda will go even further to convince people that these ideas and “facts” are their own beliefs and not the result of propaganda tactics.      

Propaganda is so pervasive that most people experience it on a regular basis and often don’t even notice. It works in the shadows to control public perception, effectively influencing political campaigns, spending allocations, corporate gains and everything in between. Propaganda tactics can be found almost everywhere, including:

  • Advertising and public relations
  • Marketing
  • Politics

This blog will dive into the murky world of propaganda, starting with how to identify it. Then, we’ll discuss its relationship with fake news, public relations, and the effect it can have on your reputation

How to identify propaganda

If propaganda is everywhere, how can you identify it? With the lines between artistic expression, marketing, advertising, public relations, propaganda, and actual news becoming increasingly blurry, it can be difficult to single out propaganda for what it is. 

People in power have been influencing public opinion using half-truths, outright lies, and other questionable tactics for as long as written records exist. Since Darius I’s rise to the Persian throne in 515 BC, propaganda has been used to incite genocide, influence political elections, change course on religious beliefs, and more. 

Despite its long history and proven effectiveness, there are some telltale signs that most propaganda exhibits. It is important to always consume media through a critical lens. Here are some common propaganda techniques to watch out for: 

  • Half-truths and distortion of data: Hyper-focusing on the parts of a story that further a particular agenda can gain audience support.
  • Inflammatory statements: Bold statements based on emotion rather than facts can ignite passionate people. 
  • Leveraging emotions: Embarrassment, humor, comparison, and fear are all examples of emotions that can be used to unify an audience.
  • Creating an enemy or scapegoat: Targeting a particular person or idea can also be used to unify people against a supposed adversary.  

Public relations vs. propaganda

Public relations and propaganda are both used to inform and persuade the public in order to push a particular agenda. They both engage specific segments of a community in ways that will influence their opinion and encourage them to take action.

The main difference between the two is that public relations campaigns promote “the truth,” although this is not always the case when dealing with dark PR or other negative campaigns. 

Generally speaking, though, the Public Relations Society of America defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Some of the most common PR activities include: 

  • Donating time, goods and money to local charities and community organizations, using related events as opportunities to “show you care.”
  • Securing interviews and promotional spots on TV shows, influential blogs and other media outlets relevant to what you do.
  • Sending out branded press releases highlighting achievements.
  • Investing in positive off-line press, such as TV commercials, outdoor and indoor ads, and more.

Fake news vs. propaganda 

Like propaganda, fake news has been around for a very long time. The difference between fake news and propaganda is that fake news is patently false. It is often used to damage the reputation of a person, group, or idea, and can promote propaganda to gain traction. 

Fake news discredits its target by using outrageous headlines and doctored images to entice people to click a link or buy a tabloid. Fake news took on a whole new meaning during the 2016 presidential election, and continues to cause problems on social media sites like Facebook.

In 2019, the top 100 fake news stories on Facebook were viewed over 150 million times. That’s enough views to reach every registered voter at least once, according to Avaaz, the non-profit that did the study. Here are a few of the top viewed fake news stories of 2019:

Examples of fake news stories

"Joe Biden Calls Trump Supporters 'Dregs of Society'"

fake news about joe biden

"Trump Is Now Trying To Get Mike Pence Impeached"

trump pence

"Trump’s grandfather was a pimp and tax evader; his father a member of the KKK"

trumps grandfather

How propaganda can affect reputation 

Propaganda, fake news and dark PR can all wreak havoc on a good reputation without regard to what is true and what’s not. Inflammatory news spreads fast, and it can be difficult to reverse its negative effect. 

Propaganda against you or your company can lead to the following negative business impacts: 

  • Fewer qualified job seekers will want to work for your company
  • You may have to cut employees or even shut down part of your business
  • People will lose trust in your business, which leads to…
    • Lower revenues
    • Higher marketing costs
    • Greater risk 

All too often, a propaganda attack will blindside a company and leave leadership scrambling to pick up the pieces and put the shattered reputation back together. If an attack happens and there is no reputation plan in place, you will lose valuable time that could have been spent mitigating the consequences early. 

Reasons why a propaganda attack may happen

Here are a few reasons why someone might launch a propaganda attack against your business: 

  • You’ve recently experienced substantial company or financial growth.
  • One or more of your employees does or says something controversial (e.g., makes an impulsive social media comment, gets arrested, makes the news for something questionable).
  • A data breach occurs.
  • Disgruntled customers come forward (whether by leaving poor reviews or otherwise).
  • Your business or employees expressly share their opinions on hot-button topics like politics or religion.
  • You’ve done anything to provoke or anger a competing business.

What to do about propaganda or fake news

If any of the above applies to you, or if you have any other reason to suspect that you may be a target of negative propaganda, it’s important to have both a crisis management plan, and a reputation repair plan in place. Your plan should be created specifically for your company and the issues you are dealing with, but here are a few general steps to consider to proactively protect your company's reputation. 

  • Admit your mistakes when they happen.
  • Create a robust, rapid-response plan for each negative content risk.
  • Develop a positive and engaging social media presence.
  • Reinforce employee conduct policies.
  • Conduct reputation management on executives.

Propaganda has taken many forms over the years, and its targets can be both broad and narrow. While most of the standout examples of propaganda include large-scale political scandals or corporate giants, propaganda can affect almost any business. Money and power are usually the motivation for targeted propaganda attacks, so it is always a best practice to proactively protect your reputation so that any attempts to damage it can be thwarted.