This is a paper I wrote last term concerning the difficulty it is to decipher public relations and propaganda today for a Social Media course. The piece of news I used about Kenneth Cole was breaking the day I wrote this paper. Because information is hitting us at all different directions with the help of social media, I used a trending topic from that particular day to make a point of how one day news is relevant, and the next it’s not.
The Fight Against Destructive Spin
When speaking with most individuals I’ve gained an understanding that most people class public relations and propaganda in the same category, but is this really the case? In a way both have the same end goal to promote a certain idea or understanding, but one usually stands for truth and the other deception. In today’s world there is more information being thrown at you via social media than most would know what to do with; creating an abundance of knowledge from different views and angles. Unfortunately it makes it more difficult to determine what is false from what is real. By looking at the differences between public relations and propaganda today can you really tell the difference between them? If so, how?
Propaganda can be dated back to 1622 when the pope established a missionary organization called Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), which was also the source of the name (Encyclopedia-Britannica). According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary propaganda is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” The definition is simple and if read quickly enough you may think it sounds similar to what public relations stands for, which is “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution (Merriam-Webster).” Truthfully definitions of ideas such as these are vague and don’t fully represent what they stand for, but you have a sense.
Propaganda mostly is known to be used by government and political parties to distract the public from what is really behind the curtain, but today you see it being used on a daily basis; just sign onto Twitter and start reading. With the way social media spreads words like wildfire you are capable of spreading your propaganda, or spin, with a simple spark. Take for example a recent issue in the news today concerning designer Kenneth Cole, who owns three lines and a company that is reportedly worth over $1 billion (New York Magazine). Cole in an attempt to gain publicity for his new spring collection tweeted this, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo – KC.” There was, of course, a social media backlash and an estimated 1500 negative retweets were sent an hour, and a @KennethColePR twitter spoof account was made (Tsotsis). Cole, only hours after the original tweet was sent, deleted it, and made an apology. Already the publicity he has gained from remarking on such a serious situation in humor, or in light, has done what he set out to do, right? Cole was looking for people to take notice of his spring collection and that is exactly what he got. Now is it in a positive light? Most would say no.
This isn’t the first time Cole has pulled off a stunt like this. Once he compared a woman’s choice in handbags to a woman’s right to choose an abortion (Tsotsis). His company survived and it continues to thrive. Who is to say that the tweet Cole made himself wasn’t propaganda to get attention to his new line. I would argue that he knew very well that the public would lash out at him for making such a crude comment regarding the recent events in Egypt. Should we consider this issue propaganda, or just bad PR?
As one blogger stated about the Kenneth Cole stunt, “anytime you have to issue an apology and interrupt your work of growing your business, that is bad PR. No matter how many people are talking about you (Dietrich).” Does propaganda then stand for bad PR? In my opinion yes. The blogger continues to point out reasons why, “people have a horrible perception of the PR industry,” and in her words it’s, “because of crap like this (Dietrich).” “Maybe it won’t hurt sales. Maybe some people will be grateful to be reminded of how much they love his shoes and clothes. Maybe it won’t bother people outside the social media bubble one bit. But maybe it will create boycotts. And maybe it will decrease sales. And that, folks, is bad PR (Dietrich).”
Similar propaganda ploys are being sent out on a daily basis with the help of social media, so it’s safe to say it has become difficult to determine the difference between good public relations and propaganda. But as shown in cases such as the famous Balloon boy incident people are willing to do a little investigating and dig down to reach the truth, and when the truth does come out everyone, and I mean everyone, will hear about it thanks to social media.
Not only are journalists helping to find answers to these questions but PR gurus are making a positive name for themselves by incorporating the concepts of engagement and relationship building to bring to light the truth. The PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) defines PR today as: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other (PRSA).” This definition sounds a bit different from what you may find in your dictionary, and that is because to weed out the propaganda and bad PR you must redefine PR, evolving the definition alongside public relations’ changing roles.
Dietrich, Gini. “Kenneth Cole Demonstrates How Not to Use Twitter | Spin Sucks.” Spin Sucks – Social Media Strategy and Social Media Consulting for Marketing and PR. 04 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Feb. 2011. <http://www.spinsucks.com/social-media/kenneth-cole-demonstrates-how-not-to-use-twitter/>.
Tsotsis, Alexia. “@KennethCole Sets New Bar For Social Media Stupidity [Update: And Removes Tweet].” TechCrunch. 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/03/kenneth-cold/>.
“Kenneth Cole – Designer Fashion Label.” New York Magazine — NYC Guide to Restaurants, Fashion, Nightlife, Shopping, Politics, Movies. New York Media LCC, 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://nymag.com/fashion/fashionshows/designers/bios/kennethcole/>.
“Propaganda — Britannica Online Encyclopedia.” Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/478875/propaganda>.
“Propaganda – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/propaganda>.
“Public Relations Definition: PRSA Official Statement.” Public Relations Resources & Tools for Communications Professionals: PRSA. PRSA, 2010. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/PublicRelationsDefined/>.
“Public Relations – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.”Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 03 Feb. 2011. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/public relations?show=0&t=1296780196>.