Everyone recognizes propaganda when it consists of a direct lie. That is why the actions of Goebbels and Stalin on behalf of their respective governments present a minimal theoretical problem. Infact, an excerpt from Bernays states that government is government only by virtue of public acceptance, whether constitutional, communists, monarchical or democratic because it depends upon consenting public opinion for the success of their efforts.
As a PR student, watching War Spin: the media and the Iraq War, leads me to the conclusion that propaganda is harmful. Yet, when asked what we would do, supposing we were working for the Ministry of Defence, we naturally took role of the 'bad guy' but made it look angelic as we sought to prove that our messages were meant to benefit the people we were communicating to. I wonder if any of us would have taken that stand before watching the movie...we probably would have said "I'll resign".
Governments and the military have always used propaganda in a negative way and treat is as 'a necessity to mobilize' its citizens. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin regimes, first and second world wars, the gulf war, Iraq invasion ... The list could go on and on.
Yet in a strange uneasy way, propaganda is used to influence masses effectively to this day. It was used to consolidate and galvanize nations throughout the first and second world wars. McCusker shows how its use in the first Gulf War was responsible for turning the tide of public opinion against Iraq, towards the US resolve for participation in the conflict - commonly known as the incubator tale.
But then, do governments have to lie to those who elected them? The invasion of Afghanistan was easier to understand as a country was on a mission to protect itself from terrorist attacks after the 9/11 attacks. The Iraqi war has not been justified, yet it was an expensive war and the famous WMDs that are still ‘at large’.
The war saw thousands of people (civilians and soldiers) lose their lives, was it for a worthy cause? What is the implication when such propaganda creates a public and possible international outroar? Obviously integrity, honesty, responsibility to the public and ethics are put on the line. Tench (2009) states that it is easier to judge others for using propaganda than to examine ones own practises (p. 253). The situation being "I practise PR, you practise Propaganda". Food for thought, huh.
Bernays, E., (1928), Propaganda, Ig Publishing, New York
McCusker,(2005), Talespin: Public Relations disasters-inside stories & lessons learnt, Kogan Page, London
PR Watch.org, How PR sold the War in the Persian Gulf ; http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy10.html
Tench and Yeomans (2009), Exploring Public Relations (2nd ed.), Pearson, Essex.