Discuss the idea that persuasion is a process of manipulation, exploitation and misinformation; thus its use in public relations can never be justified.
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Anna-Louise Whitaker - BAPR2 - Persuasion and Influence Assignment - November 2003 Question B: Discuss the idea that persuasion is a process of manipulation, exploitation and misinformation; thus its use in public relations can never be justified Persuasive messages are part of people's everyday lives. These messages take shape in many forms, ranging from small persuasive messages such as the way a product is packaged, to the highly persuasive nature of cults or a powerful and influential speaker. A US magazine 'Advertising Age' estimates the average American is exposed to over five thousand persuasive messages a day (Larson 1998, p.5). Are we being manipulated, exploited and misinformed by these messages? Persuasion is defined as "a transactional process among two or more persons whereby the management of symbolic meaning reconstructs reality, resulting in voluntary change in beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviours." by Johnston (1994, p.7). Levitt (1974 cited Johannesen 1996 p.41) suggests "the human audience demands symbolic interpretation of everything it sees and knows". Symbolic interpretation could involve manipulation, misinformation and exploitation because it might mean not telling things exactly as they are; yet according to Levitt, people not only accept this but expect this.
Politics can often be described as propagandist, which can often involve PR advisers. For example, during an election campaign, the candidate could be said to be promoting his or her own objectives. However, it can be argued that they are trying to gain the mutual understanding of the public to gain their support. Manipulation and misinformation could be factors in this situation if the candidate makes false claims or doesn't tell the whole truth in order to gain this support. From another perspective, scholar Johannesen explains, "propaganda is a campaign of mass persuasion" (1996 cited Larson 1998 p.38). This suggests that persuasion by organisations through advertising, marketing and public relations are, in fact, propagandist and not merely persuasive. Furthermore, Stauber and Rampton (1995 p.18) suggest that people understand that adverts are propaganda, which in turn implies that propaganda is an acceptable tool to use, if is to be assumed that advertising is an acceptable thing to do. However, an important point in regard to public relations is PR campaigns where adverts are disguised as news and sent out in press release form to the media. These adverts in a news story structure may not be recognised as propaganda to audiences.
If brainwashing were possible, it would only be among those with very low self-identity (1994 p.16). Example of groups who may have low self-identity could be children or those who are mentally handicapped. The argument is that if we are capable of making good judgements, perhaps unethical persuasion or propaganda is tolerable so long as we can make moral decisions ourselves. The real problem of exploitative persuasion lays in people whose ethical systems or self-identity is not strong enough to resist unethical or immoral persuasion. For example, it could be argued that public relations activities designed to influence the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours or children are not acceptable as their value systems and sense of self-identity is not yet developed enough. In conclusion, persuasion is a fundamental part of society; it is impossible to remove it. Misinformation and exploitation can sometimes, but not always, form a part of the persuasive process. Manipulation is a slightly more ambiguous word and seems to exist in all types of persuasion to varying extents. Whether public relations activities are seen as a part persuasion or propaganda, both can essentially be manipulative or exploitative. PR activities could be justified if the actions are ethical and reasoned. Where children or others susceptible to persuasion are involved, one must rely on the value system of the PR practitioner, company or persuader to do the 'right thing'.
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