Ethical Persuasion


Since Edward Bernays introduced the term public relations in the 1920s, various phrases including persuasion, propaganda and publicity have become connected with the profession of public relations. Though many people associate the term persuasion with a negative connotation in the practice of public relations, it can be positive and ethical as long as all necessary information is available to the public and decisions by practitioners are made in the public interest.

Since the days of Bernays, the foundation of public relations has grown into a wide-spread and even more important field. Philosophers like Richard Weaver are great contributors to the ethical realm that surround the practice of public relations. Ethical persuasion, at its most basic level is language. Using language and rhetoric to persuade is not a new idea, it has been around since the days of early philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. As an ethical philosopher, Weaver learned that language was the basis of ethical persuasion and could be used to make people to anything; good, bad or nothing at all (Weaver, Johannesen, Strickland, & Eubanks, 1970).

Weaver’s outlook was based mainly in the early theories of Plato’s noble rhetoric. Weaver’s admiration for lyrics and poetry is evident in his ideals of rhetoric and ethics. In using language as a tool of persuasion, connotation, detonation and analogies are all important, both how they are used and when they are used (Weaver, Johannesen, Strickland, & Eubanks, 1970). According to the beliefs of both Plato and Weaver, ethical persuasion in itself was an art form.


Rhetoric: defined as an ancient art of argumentation and discourse. Rhetoric is rooted in the communicational persuasive theories of logos, pathos and ethos (Hashimoto, 1985).

Logos: is the logic behind persuasion. Using logistics and factual information to support the persuasive topic. The impact of logos on an audience is sometimes called the argument's logical appeal.

Pathos: is often associated with emotional appeal. But a better equivalent might be 'appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination.' An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer's point of view. Pathos refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the message on an audience, the power with which the writer's message moves the audience to decision or action.

Ethos: refers to the trustworthiness or credibility of the writer or speaker. Ethos is often conveyed through tone and style of the message and through the way the writer or speaker refers to differing views. It can also be affected by the writer's reputation as it exists independently from the message.
(Hashimoto, 1985).

Rhetoric’s use to motivate and persuade are best explained in the work of Aristotle, who defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Ross and Ross, 1981).

Ethical Persuasion: Ethical persuasion can be defined as an individual’s ability give fairness and respect as a form of understanding others (Fawkes, 2007). In ethical persuasion, individuals most consider the viewpoint of others and avoid leading them astray. Persuasion, as discussed is rooted in rhetoric and ethical persuasion aims to use rhetoric in a way that is moral to everyone involved (Fawkes, 2007).

The Ethics of Rhetoric: The ethics of rhetoric deals with morality and an individual’s ability to not be tempted into serving their own interests by negatively impacting others. This principle works in both ways, as it is unethical to use persuasion to increase individual interests without knowing the impact that it may have on others (Kresse, 2009).

Ethical persuasion differentiates from propaganda because it acknowledges the truth; it does not control or manipulate it for the public. [1]

The TARES Test

A test consisting of five prima facie duties was established to act as professional guidelines to follow for ethical persuasion. A prima facie duty is an obligation that must be fulfilled unless subject to another prima facie duty that is of greater importance. [2] The five principles of the TARES test are:

- Truthfulness of the message
- Authenticity of the persuader
- Respect for the persuadee
- Equity of the appeal
- Social responsibility for the common good [3]

If all five principles are respected in communication, it is deemed as having met the ethics for persuasive practice.

Ethical Framework

Public relations practitioners are faced with ethical issues regularly in their practice. Being an advocate for organizations can sometime leave PR professionals in an uncomfortable position as far as ethics are concerned. In terms of ethical persuasion, as Weaver would suggest, the way in which we use language can set the stage for our success (Weaver, Johannesen, Strickland, & Eubanks, 1970). In a practice so highly rooted in influence, public relations professionals must be savvy when using language to persuade; being to act ethically and not put their organization’s interests above the greater good of others.

Public relations practitioners can follow a framework as a structural basis to ensure their messages are persuasive, yet ethical. The elements that must be considered in ethical persuasion are:
- The value of respect for reason
- The standards of truthfulness, respect, authenticity and equity
- The tests of reversibility, principles, criteria and publicity. [4]

If these aspects are adhered to, the practitioner practices persuasive ethical communication. It is also important to examine the ethical context including the practitioner’s own ethical values, the ethical atmosphere in which they work in, the ethical expectations of all publics, as well as the professionals codes they abide by such as those presented by the Canadian Public Relations Society. [5]


When examining ethical persuasion, a public relations practitioner must assess its publics and their welfare. It is difficult for practitioners to pinpoint what exactly “acting in the public’s best interest” is as there are no concrete descriptions of this by scholars in public relations. [6]
Therefore, they must make such judgments for themselves, which can create ethical irregularities among practitioners.

  1. ^ Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communications Management, 11(1), 29-52.
  2. ^ Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.
  3. ^ Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2/3), 148-175.
  4. ^ Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communications Management, 11(1), 29-52.
  5. ^ Fawkes, J. (2007). Public relations models and persuasion ethics: A new approach. Journal of Communications Management, 11(4), 313-331.
  6. ^ Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communications Management, 11(1), 29-52.

Fawkes, J. (2007). Public Relations Models and Persuasion Ethics: A New Approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11(4), 313-331.

Hashimoto, I. (1985). Persuasion as Ethical Argument. Rhetoric Review, 4(1), 46-53.

Kresse, D. J. (2009). Advocacy and debate (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Learning Solutions.

Ross, R. S., & Ross, M. G. (1981). Understanding persuasion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Weaver, R. M., Johannesen, R. L., Strickland, R., & Eubanks, R. T. (1970). Language is sermonic: Richard M. Weaver on the nature of rhetoric. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.