Persuasive communication and its ethics
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Public relations has developed as a profession in order to manage communication between different groups of people. This communication process is a persuasive process; which has the ability to influence public opinion. Creating public opinion is often the role of public relations practitioners, as practitioners influence public discourse through the communication processes they manage. This power to manage public opinion creates ethical dilemmas. Many commentators contend that public relations is a pervasive and negative influence, and demand more accountable and socially responsible behaviour. Despite most public relations industry associations having codes of ethics or conduct, this has not solved the issue of ethics, and many practitioners continue to debate how more ethical behaviour can be achieved. However, this thesis proposes that it is possible to influence public opinion in a way that is effective, ethical and persuasive; and that this managed communication helps to create balanced public discourse, meeting the needs of stakeholders as well as serving the public interest. The research examines how managed communication influences public discourse, and the ethical responsibility that this creates. Theories in the areas of public relations, communication and persuasion are explored. Key themes are drawn from each of these areas, and a framework for evaluating persuasive communication is developed. The resulting model challenges traditional two-way communication approaches and offers an alternative multi-sided approach to communication, which seeks to redress the imbalance in public discourse, and suggests a different role for the public relations practitioner. Multi-sided communication demands that the public relations practitioner accepts responsibility for creating opportunities for different points of view to be expressed in the public domain. This is concluded as one of the key determinants of ethical behaviour, and therefore an important principle of the proposed model. A model is presented that reflects multi-sided communication and balances the imperatives of communication, persuasion and ethics (CPE model). This model provides an evaluative tool for qualitatively assessing proposed or completed communication campaigns. This thesis argues that if practitioners were to apply this model, the public would feel that public relations provided a better service to them, and not just to the clients or organisations the practitioner represents. This in turn would help to improve the integrity of the practice of public relations. It is accepted that the model is not a panacea for the issues the public relations industry faces. Two significant challenges still remain. Firstly, traditional constraints such as time, money and resources will continue to inhibit effective, ethical communication. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is unlikely that a client or organisation will fund or support competing ideas and views.