Friday, 25 February 2011

Public Diplomacy or Propaganda?

In the process of defining public diplomacy we often find the mention of a link between public diplomacy and propaganda. Are they the same thing? Noting that both terms lack one clear definition (Brown, 2008), there are some who argue that indeed, public diplomacy was born as (and still is) a euphemism for propaganda, as Edmund Gullion, who coined the term in 1965, himself indicated (Berridge, 2010, 179, 181 and 182). He would have called the “conduct of foreign policy through engaging international publics” (i.e. influencing public opinion abroad) “propaganda” (Cull, 2010, 11), but could not do so because in various languages the term carries negative connotations (the English and Americans are reminded of the first World War propaganda campaigns, while Germans immediately think of Hitler, Goebbels, and other figures and practices during Nazi rule) (Lilleker, 2006, 163). So he called it “public diplomacy”.

Is public diplomacy propaganda? It cannot be entirely different, because both practices are aimed at influencing public opinion in favour of the “sender” (Brown, 2008). But is that all there is to it? Many highlight the differences between the two by looking at public diplomacy “at its best” (Berridge, 2010, 182). Public diplomacy in its ideal form is a two-way system of communication (Kruckeberg and Vujnovic, 2005, 302) in which those who are to be influenced are first “listened” and not simply spoken to (Cull, 2010, 12). Propaganda, whether its source is known (white propaganda), unknown (grey propaganda) or falsified (black propaganda), does not listen (Osgood, 2002).

We seem to be able to separate propaganda and public diplomacy by looking at the intention (good or bad), the methods used (listening or telling), and the sources employed (truthful or falsified) in the practice of influencing foreign public opinion. Yet, again it is the influence of foreign public opinion that is the aim of both (Berridge, 2010, 182), regardless of the intention, methods, or sources. What does this mean? Both certainly overlap and can be virtually the same thing in practice. But at their extremes they can diverge and appear quite different. So maybe this means that they are part of one another – is public diplomacy the “soft” or “nice” part of propaganda or maybe a modern and sophisticated version of it? Because after all, it is a widespread view that the best propaganda is the one we do not identify as being propaganda at all (Brown, 2007). Or have we moved from the dark ages of propaganda (as practiced by totalitarian societies and during the Cold War) to a new an enlightened age of engaging public diplomacy - with propaganda merely being an aberration from the norm? Do only those who have not yet learned any better engage in propaganda?

I believe that both terms are very closely related and in the end, our opinion on this matter will always be based on our definition of the concepts. This means that it will continue to be a disputed question, because both terms are notoriously difficult to define.


- Berridge, G.R. (2010) Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 4th ed., Palgrave, Basingstoke

- Brown, John H. (2007) “The Paradoxes of Propaganda”, US Centre on Public Diplomacy, CPD Blog, 16th April,, accessed: 22.2.2011, 19:36

- Brown, John H. (2008) “Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences”,, 16th September,, accessed: 22.2.2011, 19:55

- Cull, Nicholas J. (2010) “Public Diplomacy: Seven lessons for its future from its past”, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, Vol.6, No.1, pp.11-17

- Kruckeberg, Dean and Vujnovic, Marina (2005) “Public relations, not propaganda, for US public diplomacy in a post-9/11 world: Challenges and opportunities”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol.9, No.4, pp.296-304

- Lilleker, Darren G. (2006) Key Concepts in Political Communication, Sage Publications, London

- Osgood, Kenneth A. (2002) “Propaganda”, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy,, accessed: 22.2.2011, 19:56


  1. I find your post very well-written and well-argued, it was a joy to read it. I agree with you that both concepts can seem incredibly similar at times, yet there are moments when they appear very different. Do you believe that public diplomacy is most frequently employed at its best? Or do you believe that while it should be in theory we have not yet reached that point in practice?

  2. I agree that there are many speculations about whether public diplomacy is or isn’t equal with propaganda. Especially, when looking at the public diplomacy of some countries it could be difficult to distinguish.
    Nevertheless, there could be reached a consensus on where propaganda ends and where public diplomacy begins. This is possible to explain on an example of China. It is generally agreed that prior to 1990, China conducted external propaganda whereas, now, it carries out public diplomacy. This argument is possible to support by the fact that before the end of the Cold War, China’s propaganda was concentrated on ideological themes. It was devoted to the appreciation of communism. Now, it shifted its objectives and concentrates on positive image building and economic cooperation.
    I agree, that it is generally accepted that whether country conducts public diplomacy or propaganda will be determined by the character of the country’s political system. It is believed that democratic countries conduct public diplomacy because of their transparency. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes carry out propaganda instead.
    Well, it is difficult topic and its seems that it is up to everyone’s liking to understand public diplomacy as propaganda or the other way round.