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April 29, 2010 Volume 31, No. 29

Propaganda or PR?

Learning process

Researcher suggests China open communications

What constitutes effective public relations strategies is an ongoing discussion among professionals in the field, as well as the general public. MU researchers recently studied the effectiveness of public relations strategies employed during the SARS virus crises of 2002.

Ernest Zhang, the China program coordinator at MU’s School of Journalism and an expert in international communications, studied the public relations strategies employed by Zhang Wenkang, the former Chinese health minister, during the SARS crisis. The researcher wanted to analyze the strategies used and also trace the historical use of public relations in China.

“In China, as with many countries that were previously pure Communist societies, there was no PR, just propaganda,” Zhang says. “Propaganda doesn’t work sometimes. PR is much more effective, but it has taken the Chinese government a long time to realize this. The SARS crisis was a learning process for the government.”

In his study, the journalism researcher applies former MU faculty member William Benoit’s comprehensive theory of image restoration to analyze Minister Zhang’s public relations methods. When applying this theory to Minister Zhang’s strategies, the journalism researcher found the attempt of image repair to be unsuccessful.

“There was too much self-contradiction in his discourse,” he says. “Minister Zhang’s arguments were based on lies or inaccurate information.”