PERSUASION AND ETHICS


“Not brute force but only persuasion and faith are the kings of this world.” -Thomas Carlyle
Persuasion is defined as methods used to influence attitudes, raise awareness, educate or influence behaviours (Messina, 2007). It is often associated with rhetoric, advocacy, propaganda, coercion and advertising. PR practitioners often use persuasion in their communications tools.
Many believe that the first PR practitioners were the ancient Greeks, known as sophists and rhetoricians, who earned money by arguing causes publicly in an effort to sway opinion on matters of public interests (Edgett, 2002).
In today’s society persuasion often has a negative reputation, especially when it is associated with propaganda. Defenders of persuasion argue that propaganda differs from persuasion because propaganda focuses on the ends, often using deception, control and a disregard for the truth, as a means to serve the propagandist.

Philosophical Foundations for Ethical Persuasion


“Ethics (moral philosophy) is a subject that primarily is not concerned with increased profits or increased visibility. It is, rather, concerned with what one ought to do—or ought not to do.” i
Socrates (as interpreted by Plato) believed rhetoric to be a way to cleverly arrange words to manipulate audiences. Aristotle believed that the best rhetoric was successful because it was truthful. For both, the ultimate goal of a social debate was learning the truth. Where Socrates believed only the truthful dialogue could achieve enlightenment, Aristotle believed that there was a role for rhetoric and the art of persuasion (Edgett, 2002).
The Deontological philosophy of Immanuel Kant proposed that the basis for morality is reason (Waluchow, 2003). Kant argued that it is our capacity to deliberate about and act upon reasons for action, which makes us moral beings. Kant introduced “categorical imperative,” by which one should only act as though their action were to become a universal law of nature (Waluchow, 2003). Thus lying or using misleading persuasion would be unethical because it would not respect individuals’ autonomy, and not allow people to use their capacity to reason to make informed choices (Messina, 2007).
Emotive Theory proposed that moral expressions are different from factual ones because they express emotions. Therefore ethical statements, being based on emotions, cannot be true or false and can only be supported by persuasion, not by evidence. Persuasion, according to C.L. Stevenson (1937), is a non-rational approach to affecting a redirection of the hearer’s attitudes. He argued that persuasion is often the only way to resolve ethical debates, and allows “our personalities to grow, through our contact with others” (Stevenson, 1937, p. 29-30).
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of obligation that argues that the value of an action always lies in its good consequences (Walchouw, 2003). Utilitarianism brings a “happiness quotient” for society.
Rule Utilitarianism allows for exceptions at the extreme to utilitarianism, but still requires adherence to rules such as “don’t lie” (Messina 2007). Rule utilitarianism would argue that in extreme situations it is preferable to break certain moral rules such as lying. For example, it would be acceptable for a person to lie about hiding a Jewish family away from Hitler’s army.

Persuasion and Public Relations


Persuasion is integral to communication and public relations for, “one cannot inform without the message receiver at least implicitly being persuaded that the topic is worthy of attention,” (Messina, 2007, p 30).

Academic scholars have noted that the term “persuasion” is often avoided in discussions with PR professionals most likely because of the connection it has with propaganda (Messina, 2007).
Yet some PR professionals have argued that they are serving the public interest by helping to make various points of view known (Baker & Martinson, 2001).
However, critics maintain that it is difficult for the audience to decipher the difference between truth, manipulation, coercion and propaganda.

What is ethical persuasion, and what does it look like?


“Those engaged in efforts to persuade through advertising and public relations will begin to demonstrate genuine respect for others only when they begin to demonstrate that they can view a situation through the eyes of listeners as well as their own.”ii
It may be easier to define ethical persuasion by stating what it is not. Ethical persuasion is not propaganda, coercion, or deception. It is the practice of influential communication that respects the autonomy of the audience by presenting truthful and relevant information. It enables audiences to make voluntary, informed, rational and reflective choices. iii

Three methods for guiding ethical persuasion have been identified.


1) Apply the TARES test.


Sherry Baker and David Martinson (2001) proposed a five-part ‘TARES’ test to help guide the PR practitioner to define ethical persuasion.
a) Truthfulness of the message
b) Authenticity of the persuader
c) Respect for the audience
d) Equity of the persuasive appeal

Baker and Martinson (2001) argue that persuasion must serve a moral end rather than an immediate and instrumental end, and emphasis must be made on the audience’s ability to voluntarily change their attitudes or actions. iv

2) Apply Alex Messina’s (2007) guidelines for ethical persuasion by asking the following questions.


Does the planned communication:
a) Agree with the value of respect for reason – i.e. offer adequate information to allow audiences to make voluntary, informed, rational and reflective judgments?
b) Meet the standards for truthfulness, respect, authenticity and equity?
c) Withstand the testes of reversibility, principles and criteria and publicity?

If any standard is not met:
a) Is there an ascertainable balance of good accrued or harm averted?
b) Is it justifiable by reasoned argument?
c) Is the reasoning validated by evidence?
d) Do the justifying and validating evidence withstand the tests of reversibility, principles and criteria and publicity?
e) Can you will the exception to be applied universally based on the justifying reasons and validating evidence? v


3) Apply Fitzpatrick’s & Gauthier’s (2001) questions.

a) For what purpose is persuasion being employed?
b) Toward what choices and with what consequences for individual lives is persuasion being used?
c) Does the persuasion in this case contribute to or interfere with the decision-making process for its target audience? vi

“Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion”-Aristotle



Endnotes



i Baker, S., Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 148-175.

ii Baker, S., Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 148-175.

iii Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11 (1), 29-52. Doi: 10.1108/13632540710725978

iv Baker, S., Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 148-175.

v Fitzpatrick, K., Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 193-212.

vi Fitzpatrick, K., Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16, 193-212.



References

Baker, S., Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16,
148-175.
Edgett, R. (2002). Toward an ethical framework for advocacy in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14, 1-26.
Fitzpatrick, K., Gauthier C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media
Ethics, 16, 193-212.
Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11, 29-52. Doi: 10.1108/13632540710725978
Stevenson, C.L. (1944). Ethics and Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd.