Can persuasive communication be defended on ethical grounds and how is it
different from propaganda?
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
today's 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,
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
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.
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,
• 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.
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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A Whiteside is a Manager of Digital PR for PRCo.