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Sunday, April 22, 2012

No-Propaganda Government Communication: Is It Possible?

Thirty years ago it was almost unheard of to pay a public relations firm to communicate on behalf of the federal government: we spent just $2 million over the course of 12 years, from 1980-1992. By 2003 that figure had soared to $161 million (see graphic).

In addition to spending on public relations, the government spends money on advertising. It is estimated that federal ad spending in fiscal year 2002 was more than $400 million, peaked in 2004 and 2009 at $1.2 billion or more, and settled back down at about $750 million in 2011 (see graphic).

Government PR versus Advertising: Why The Distinction? What's The Difference?

The Congressional Research Service notes that the figures for ad spending can only be taken as estimates because the line between "public relations" and "advertising" is not clearly drawn by federal agencies. Therefore, they may classify the exact same services as either one or the other in the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS):
"Without agreement among agencies over what constitutes advertising, any
contracting data drawn from FPDS must be viewed with considerable caution." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

Why might the government classify the very same kind of expense as "advertising" rather than "public relations"?

The short answer, in my view, is that advertising is more defensible than PR as a use of taxpayer money. This is because advertising is explicitly intended to bring information to the attention of the public and therefore directly supports the mission of the agency.

After all, if the government offers a service or institutes a requirement and the public doesn't know about it, then does it even exist?

The technical language for this allowance is the "necessary expense doctrine." It says, basically, that you can spend government money on things that are:
  • "Necessary or incidental to the achievement of the underlying objectives of the
  • "Not prohibited by law, and
  • "Not otherwise provided for by statute or appropriation." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

On the other hand, the very definition of PR sounds like propaganda, which is illegal: "Public relations includes ongoing activities to ensure the overall company has a strong public image." (Free Management Library)

In theory, both advertising and PR are necessary expenses for any organization, especially today. We live in an incredibly crowded "marketspace" where audiences routinely--

1) shut out the message
2) jump to conclusions
3) readily accept false information as true

Therefore, getting accurate information out quickly through a variety of channels is essential.

The practical question, though, is whether it is possible for someone to communicate without inherently propagandizing for their own particular point of view? Consider the inevitable biases at work:

1) On the micro level, individuals seek to justify their own behavior.
2) On the intermediate level, divisions of organizations seek to justify their own behaviors and perpetuate their existence.
3) On the macro level, every organization will seek to perpetuate and justify itself. This may not be propaganda with a "Big P" in the sense of large-scale, grassroots lobbying; it may not even be intended or conscious. But it is propaganda with a "Little P," in the sense that it lacks the self-criticism that is the hallmark of objective communication.

I do think that communication can be offered in a non-propagandistic way. Here are some of the key dimensions of propaganda; after reviewing them I'll suggest a couple of ways we might be able to counterbalance it.

Q&A: 5 Dimensions of Propaganda

1. What is the common definition of propaganda?
"Information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to influence opinions and incite action." (Source: Wikipedia)

2. What is the legal prohibition against using taxpayer dollars for propaganda?
"The GAO has held that the 'publicity or propaganda' prohibition in appropriations laws forbids any public relations activity that:
  • "Involves 'self-aggrandizement' or 'puffery' of the agency, its personnel, or activities;
  • "Is 'purely partisan in nature,' that is, is 'designed to aid a political party or candidate'; or,
  • "Is 'covert propaganda,' that is, the communication does not reveal that
    government appropriations were expended to produce it." (
    Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Staff Report)

Additionally, "annual appropriations acts often carry a prohibition that forbids the use of appropriated funds 'for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not authorized by the Congress.' These restrictions have appeared in appropriations laws for over a half century." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

See also: Plain Language Guidelines from the National Institutes of Health Ethics Program

3. What is the original text of the law?
"No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation."(18 USC § 1913: Lobbying With Appropriated Moneys")

4. What is the basic difference between legitimate and illegitimate government communication?
"Agencies have a duty to inform and educate the public, but they should not attempt to persuade it or to engage in political or policy advocacy or elections." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

5. How can the government technically comply with the law, but evade it at the same time?
"One can mislead another by communicating just facts but not all the facts....Furthermore, even the conveyance of pure facts can have persuasive effects on an audience, depending on how the facts are presented." (Congressional Research Service report 2005)

How Can We Counterbalance The Tendency to Propagandize?

First, let's accept that there is an inherent desire to make oneself look good. This is "small P" propaganda and it is nearly inevitable. (Note: As a corollary I would argue in defense of federal agencies that there is NOT an equally inevitable drive to violate the law with "Big P" propagandizing. This is in fact something that is generally recognized to be inappropriate, illegal and unacceptable, and a normally functioning culture would act to hold in check.)

Second, let's support three major mechanisms that already keep propaganda in check:
  • Internal audits
  • External reviews (e.g. by Congress)
  • Online transparency mechanisms such as USAspending.gov

Third, I would recommend such measures as the following:
  1. Reduce barriers between the media and direct access to subject matter experts in the agency
  2. Establish clear definitions of advertising vs. public relations and ensure that agencies use the correct classification when initiating a procurement
  3. Change the culture of government communication to be less PR-y - e.g. from "public affairs" to "information officers
  4. Have government communicators report to someone within the agency who is not biased in favor of looking good - recasting information provision a reporting function, perhaps even part of the "Open Government" office
  5. Reduce the proportion of agency spending on "push" communications and increase the proportion of "pull" spending on such items as citizen engagement, social media, and open government.
  6. Institutionalize and normalize government communication as a reflexive, reflective exercise through annual performance reports that are an exercise in objective self-review rather than a "year of accomplishments" message
  7. Publish transparently on the web expenses related to communication and their results
  8. Require that communication expenses be tied to measurable performance goals
  9. Require that government communications include a "context" or "bias" section in which the inherent methodological flaws of the communication are discussed in the report itself
  10. Regular training sessions for employees regarding public affairs ethics, and encouragement for employees to discuss questions and concerns with an Ethics Officer.

It is possible to change the tone of government communication so that it is less self-congratulatory and possibly propagandistic, and more useful and usable to the public.

The key is to make sure that spending on government communication is visible; that its intended outcomes are measurable and tied directly to the mission; and that criticism of the mode of communication begin within the agency.

In this way the things we say become part of a dialogue between ourselves and ourselves, and ourselves and the public. Never is there a "final word," but rather everything we generate is viewed as a work in progress that can always be improved.

Finally, it may seem paradoxical but it is probably true: The more transparent the institution, the better its reputation in the first place - and the less it needs PR "experts" to massage its credibility for the sake of its stakeholders.

Just some food for thought on a Sunday; I woud appreciate hearing what others think.

And as always, although I work for the government, all the views expressed here are my own.

Good luck!

(Note: This post was updated 4/22 at 6:56 p.m.)