Merriam-Webster defines “propaganda” as: “…the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person…ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause…also : a public action having such an effect.”
According to Wikipedia, “Propaganda, an influential book written by Edward L. Bernays [Propaganda/PR pioneer] in 1928, incorporated the literature from social science and psychological manipulation into an examination of the techniques of public communication.”
Bernays explains: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. … Bernays suggests that propaganda may become increasingly effective and influential through the discovery of audiences’ hidden motives.”
So, is propaganda thought leadership or thought leadershi*? The answer is either or both. It depends on what’s being said, who’s saying it, who’s the audience and why it’s being said. One person’s thought leadership is another’s leadershi*. Think “Donald Trump.”
Supporters obviously believe his spreading of information amounts to important thought leadership. Opponents believe it’s disingenuous drivel designed to persuade, influence and tap into “audiences’ hidden motives.”
To provide a perspective that can help distinguish between the two, let’s deploy the “Dr. Phil vs. Philistine” test in a customer service realm. Merriam-Webster defines Philistine as “a person who is guided by materialism and is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values…one uninformed in a special area of knowledge.” As a synonym, I would use the word “Trump.”
Using the customer service litmus test, I would advocate that Dr. Phil is a legitimate thought leader committed to helping his “customers” consisting of audiences and his guests. While some of his advocacy is biased (e.g., when he promotes his wife’s products on-air), by most objective accounts he has done the world a world of good by offering helpful, useful, insightful information that betters the world.
Trump, in my opinion, is just the opposite. His entire approach appears to be propaganda aimed at helping Trump and his minions—with reckless disregard for the overwhelming majority of his “customers.”
He truly embodies the concept of a Philistine and propagates the essence of the negatives ascribed to propaganda.
To most, “Dr. Phil and the Philistine” exemplary two polar opposites in the realm of propaganda. But, sometimes the distinctions are blurred. What about the thought leader who provides information for the greater good while making a case for considering what he/she has to offer? Is this still a valid and valuable contribution to customer service?
In most cases, I say “yes.” To me, the most telling element is that the thought leadership content includes expert advice, ideas and insights that would be considered positive, productive and of paramount importance in the article.
Of course, in today’s world of fake news, the concept of fake thought leadership will be bandied about as well. Those holding a wide array of views and beliefs will indeed make this discussion a lively and long-lived one.
Real thought leadership vs. fake thought leadershi*: Stay tuned.
Thought leadership content provides a valuable customer service when developed as a way to impart useful, memorable expert advice. It also serves the dual purpose of being an excellent marketing avenue when written from a knowledgeable, heartfelt, even soul-felt perspective. This is the fourth in a series of four articles addressing thought leadership. It also kicks off the celebration of Mark Lusky Communications’ 37 years in business.
Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.