Can persuasive communication be defended on ethical grounds and how is it different from propaganda? Introduction Persuasion is a process of communication designed to influence the judgements and actions of others. Most PR academics agree it is the goal of the vast majority of public relations programmes and hence forms its dominant practice. The art of communication is central to the function of PR: “Stripped to its fundamentals, public relations means communicating with others” (Tymson and Sherman, 1996, cited in Reddi, 2002, p19). Moloney (2000) expands on this view: “…PR people use processes of persuasion, compromise, bargaining and negotiation in search of compliance and problem solving” (p.55). While persuasive communication often co‐habits with propaganda and its implied connotations, a pivotal element of ethical persuasion is truthfulness; where truthfulness requires intention and action that does not mislead, misinform or deceive. Messina (2007) defined ethical persuasion as: “An attempt through communication to influence knowledge, attitude or behaviour of an audience through presentation of a view that addresses and allows the audience to make voluntary, informed, rational and reflective judgments” (p.33). From the CIPR’s definition of ‘understanding’ in its glossary, it is clear there are historic links between PR practice and propaganda: “Understanding is a two‐way process and to be effective, an organisation needs to listen to the opinions of those with whom it deals and not solely provide information. Issuing a barrage of propaganda is not enough in todays open society.” Miller’s (1989) definition of public relations further highlights the overlap between PR and propaganda as a process that attempts to manage symbolic control over the environment, observing that: “Effective persuasion and effective public relations are virtually synonymous” (p. 368). However, contemporary PR practice has sought to distance itself from propaganda as it has become increasingly discredited as unethical. This is a view echoed by Weaver et. al. (2006) who observed that as PR practitioners seek to distance themselves from propaganda tactics, especially because they have been discredited as manipulative, new models of ethical persuasion have been developed. Free will to engage in
debate and discourse is fundamentally what separates persuasive communication and the negative connotations of propaganda. This essay analyses the relationship of persuasive communication as an essential element of public relations practice. The discussion highlights the challenges facing practitioners to operate ethically on behalf of their organization, while simultaneously acting in the public interest to minimise dissonance. The essay argues for the need to understand the distinctions between persuasive communication and propaganda in order to implement persuasive tactics in an ethical manner.
Propaganda as Persuasion Jowett and O’Donnell (1999) focused their definition on the unneutrality of propaganda as a communication process: “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” (p. 6). The idea that public opinion could be managed and PR was an instrument of social control started in America shortly after the first world war; shifting from largely a public information to a purely press agentry model of communication. European business leaders and governments of the 1920s believed the publics’ emotions provided levers of influence that mere facts could never match (Ewen, 1996). As a strategic form of communication, propaganda is a technique that attempts to intentionally influence or manipulate a group of publics through language and imagery whilst maintaining an advantageous position. Propaganda as a sub‐category of persuasion has a shared heritage with public relations and has contributed both to the development of communications practice as well as the reputation and public perception of PR today. Nazi Reichsmarshall and propagandist, Herman Goering in an interview stated: “…it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along…that is easy.” (Rampton and Stauer, 2003, p.137). This unsettling view is one that has become the dominant understanding of how propaganda works, why it attracts mistrust and why PR practitioners seek to distance themselves from the activity. The public relations industry continues to face the challenge of low public opinion due to its close associations with propaganda and spin. However since the end of the Second World War, propaganda has moved away from being the preserve of the political classes. As a persuasive tool it is used in promoting consumer products including cars and beer. It does so through advertising, by bypassing rational thought, manipulating individuals on a more emotional and symbolic level. For example, during the Desert Storm conflict in 1991, the American population experienced heightened fears about their general safety and security. Taking advantage of this insecurity the Hummer sport‐utility vehicle was launched
with their anxiety in mind. Civilians wanted more more robust, secure and aggressive cars (Rampton and Stauer, 2003). This is a classic example of where persuasive techniques were employed in the traditions of propaganda, in other words the American public were persuaded that buying this car would allay their fears and increase personal safety levels. These claims were later proved completely unfounded as the vehicles actually caused many traffic related fatalities. The Hummer had in fact been originally designed for military use. Rampton and Stauer (2003) contend that there is a distinct difference between propaganda and persuasive communication. Arguing that a propagandist’s view of communication is a set of techniques for indoctrinating a ‘target audience’, whereas the democratic concept of communications is an ongoing process of dialogue among diverse voices (p.134). This suggests the propagandist does not regard the audiences’ well‐being as a primary concern, assuming that audiences are extremely passive and possess very little intelligence to participate in discourse. At the heart of every propagandist is self‐interest. Their aim is to promote the concerns of the organisation at the expense of the recipient. Jowett and O’Donnell (1999) expands on this view: “People in the audience may think the propagandist has their interest at heart, but in fact, the propagandist’s motives are selfish ones” (p.9). Indeed Jowett and O’Donnell’s definition has some similarities with the CIPR official definition of public relations which stresses the need for a ‘planned and sustained’ effort to achieve organisational objectives while ‘influencing opinion and behaviour’ as opposed to Jowett and O’Donells ‘deliberate and systemic’ attempts to ‘manipulate cognition, and direct behaviour’. Whilst it might seem desirable to place the two concepts, persuasion and propaganda at polar opposites, there is in fact an overlap; a concept endorsed by Heath (2005): “Because there may sometimes be a fine line between persuasion and propaganda, public relations practitioners must understand the differences and implement persuasive tactics in an ethical manner” (p.615). The 2005 Think Road Safety Campaign by the UK Department of Transport used fear as an emotional leverage and as a means to persuade. The inherent difference between black and white propaganda models is the acknowledgement of the source and its accuracy. Although the Think Campaign manipulates the media to
gain publicity for its cause, it is acting ethically since it does so for the greater public good; even while employing a one‐way public information communication model. This strong emotional response to visual stimuli has also been used effectively by charity fundraisers to illicit immediate responses from potential donors. Most recently it has been used by the 2010 Digital Death Campaign for Keep a Child Alive which showed hard hitting images of dead celebrities to raise funds to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa and India – eliciting a response from Twitter and Facebook, for fans to donate up to $5000 to buy their lives back. Although this campaign makes use of propaganda techniques, it cannot be assessed as unethical, especially since there is a discernable social benefit. A view echoed by Jowett and O’Donnell: “When the information is used to accomplish a purpose of sharing, explaining or instructing, this is considered to be informative communication.” (pp.25‐26). This power to influence society means that the profession of public relations holds an enormous responsibility to be ethical. A view endorsed by Harlow (1976) who observed that the public relations professional: “…define and emphasises the responsibility of management to serve the public interest…and uses research and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools” (cited in Tench and Yeomans, 2006, p.4).
Ethical Persuasion and Public Interest The UK Department of Health has enacted this concept with various persuasive communication campaigns aiming to affect and change society’s attitudes and behaviour. Most notably in recent years they have included anti‐smoking, drinking, and obesity and cancer screening campaigns. Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley (2010) in discussing the Healthy Lifestyle role ‘for all society’ stated the campaign aims were: “to improve the health of the nation and to improve the health of the poorest fastest." This involved numerous complex messages to a diverse range of publics, aiming to persuade and affect changes in behaviour. Modern PR academics have provided the structures and tools necessary to communicate persuasive messages with ethical consideration. The Westley and Maclean model of communication (1977) facilitates ethical persuasion by a process of advocacy, using various channels including feedback, to affect behaviour. A process by which Lansley says is achievable by ‘nudging’ rather than ‘nannying’. Persuasion was achieved by the encoding and dissemination of scientific facts with feedback an intrinsic element of the campaigns design and the evaluation of attitudes are considered and included in the planning stage and throughout the programme’s lifespan (Grunig, 2001). This agenda and its objective can be defended on ethical grounds since the required behavioural change is for the benefit of the campaigns’ publics. PR academics have argued that persuasion is considered unethical only when an organisation deliberately lies, distorts the facts or attempts to deceive its publics to mask its intentions. However many critics have argued that persuasion can never be considered on a sound ethical basis because the true end is not public welfare but rather organisational profit (Curtin and Boynton, 2000). However, while many PR academics would agree that the role of the public interest is central to ethical PR practice and by inference ethical persuasion, very little guidance by way of literature exists to inform PR practitioners how to determine what is in the public interest. It is clear that by acting on behalf of an organisation, it is likely that a PR practitioner would be acting in the private interest of their client rather than in the public interest. Hence without a viable definition of the public interest, it becomes difficult if not impossible to expect PR practitioners’ compliance. How common or universal
must an interest be before it is in the public interest? (Messina, 2007). For example, medical opinion on the benefits of consuming pre and pro‐biotic products (which boost levels of certain bacteria in the gut) is widely split. While some doctors claim they bring great health benefits to consumers’ immune systems, others believe there is no clear evidence to back this up. However, the UK is awash with these food products, which claim through advertising, to make consumers’ health better.
Boundary Spanning and Rhetorical Persuasion The role of boundary spanner is central to a PR practitioner’s activity and explains how the practitioner interacts with the organisation’s environment. This concept of the ethical guardian acting for the good of the organisation and its publics has formed much of the valued function of modern PR today, with the practitioner acting as a boundary spanner, gathering information from the internal and external environments, assessing the impact of organisational actions upon its publics, and recommending the ethical course of action based on supporting organisational objectives, whilst minimising dissonance. This role enacts the two‐way symmetric model of systems theory, since a vital component is feedback where compromise on both the organisations’ and publics’ view is achieved. An approach supported by Fawkes (2007) who reiterates Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) view: “In the two‐way symmetric model practitioners serve as mediators between organisations and their publics. Their goal is mutual understanding” (p. 316). As a boundary spanner, the PR practitioner’s role is considered only truly ethical when it is symmetrical. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to practice public relations in that way with the everyday realities of running a PR department. Rhetoric and persuasion are historically linked. Rooted in the culture of ancient Greece, it has influenced the way all forms of human discourse were analysed, appraised and critiqued. Aristotle (a champion of rhetoric) formulated a theory that today is still regarded as an invaluable tool for assisting the art of persuasion and the function of PR. To demonstrate this, he outlined four means of persuasion: • Ethos ‐ achieved by establishing credibility, the speaker must posses character, integrity and be knowledgeable in their subject. • Pathos ‐ appeals to an audience’s emotions in order to persuade. • Logos ‐ logic as a means to persuade; logical arguments are built from statements of evidence that lead to a sound conclusion. • Kairos ‐ fitness or timeliness, appropriateness of the message tone.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as: “…the ability to observe in any given case, the available means of persuasion – what needs to be said and how it should be said to achieve the desired outcome” (Aristotle, cited in Toth, 2000, p.124). Scholars such as Smith, Ferguson and Heath (2001) have drawn attention to the benefits of rhetoric laying within its ability to participate in mutual discourse: “the heritage of rhetoric assumes that decisions are better if people who are interested in them can communicate openly and assertively about them...it is the means through which organisations and activist publics use symbols to achieve agreement, persuade, or induce cooperation” (p.298). However, for this mutual dialogue and exchange to take place all participants must possess the right and the means to be both informed and heard. Interaction among participants must be free of manipulations, domination, or control and participants must be afforded equal opportunity to be heard.
A Case for Professionalisation A key element of persuasion is that information must be based on truth, a value also embraced by the CIPR in its formalized professional codes of conduct. Contained within it are references to integrity, honesty, competence, confidentiality, transparency, conflicts of interest and conforming to accepted business practice and ethics. These codes of conduct provide a framework that directs PR professionals to their duty to observe common standards of behaviour and conduct (Cook, 1988, Pearson, 1989). Sharpe (1990) suggests that the ethical goal for public relations practitioners consists of five professional responsibilities (Black, 1994, Blumenthal, 1972): • Honest communication to obtain organisational credibility. • Being open and consistent to gain public confidence. • Fairness in action to ensure fair treatment is received in return. • Maintaining continuous communication so that mutual understanding and respect is achieved. • Accurate research of the social environment with a willingness to change when actions no longer serves the public interest. Codifying public relations activity provides a point of reference or yardstick by which practitioners can operate professionally while reinforcing ethical expectations. In the 2001 UK Population Census, 48,000 respondents identified themselves as being employed in public relations and yet the CIPR only has a modest 9,500 members. Moreover, in a survey conducted for this paper within a global PR company; out of 220 staff, only one was an accredited member of an official industry association (Whiteside, 2010). Taking a critical perspective L’Etang (2008) expands on this view, arguing that the practice of public relations is ‘ethically challenged’ because it is unregulated, seeks to influence attitudes, opinions and decision‐making. Without wider accreditation and ability to control entry into the PR industry it is difficult to ensure ethical accountability.
Conclusion PR is indeed a form of persuasive communication. However the difference between persuasive communication and propaganda is the intent of the person who creates the message. Both communicative processes seek symbolic control over environments. However the hostility that exists between the two communications processes lies with its manipulative aim (Molonely, 2000). A view echoed by Jowett and O’Donnell (1999) in suggesting propaganda is distinguished by its purpose; to benefit the propagandist. The inference is that an ethical communicator who avoids propaganda must avoid communication, the sole or main intent of which is to manipulate the behaviour of others to benefit the communicator’s cause. This essay has demonstrated that persuasion can be but is by no means necessarily propaganda. Nor is it necessarily ethical or unethical since this should be assessed in relation to the context in which it is being practiced. The main determinant of persuasive communication as ethical PR practice is in meeting the public interest. However, the concept of the public interest has been found to be elusive as there is no universal definition of what that entails; thus it is incapable of guiding the everyday reality of persuasion in PR practice. Word Count: 2750
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