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Persuasion ethics

The key ethical elements of persuasion have to do with power, including its
corollary, deception. Persuasion is ethically problematic when someone has
social, political or informational power over another.
Ethical issues in persuasion involve the ends (the intention and purpose of the
persuader) as well as the means (the appropriateness or deceptiveness of the
tool or technique, the openness about purpose) of persuasion.
Most advertising and public communication is openly and blatantly persuasive.
The frankness of these appeals generally avoids the problem of hidden intent
and moves the ethical discussion to considerations of manner. Are the
communications truthful and appropriate? Many claims are inappropriate,
untruthful, misleading or deceptive. The ethics are in the user and the use, not in
the technique.
There is no doubt that public relations practice is inherently subjective; few other
professions require the same degree of problem-solving and professional
judgment in daily practice. As a result, there is no set system of practice, nor a
single broad ethical framework to guide practitioners.
Whats more, the public relations professional bodies around the world cant
effectively impose penalties on ethics offenders because more than two thirds of
practitioners dont belong to a public relations professional body. It seems that
voluntary adherence to ethical behavior in public relations is about the best the
profession can dowith some help from the codes of ethics of professional
Edgett (2002) reviews the topic of ethics in terms of advocacy, which she
considers to be a central function of public relations. Her definition of advocacy is
the act of publicly representing an individual, organisation or idea with the object
of persuading targeted audiences to look favorably on or accept the point of
view of the individual, the organisation or the idea. That is, being persuasive on
behalf of the organisation or a client. Edgett contends that a moral superiority
has been conferred on objectivity at the expense of persuasiveness, and that
persuasiveness is not inherently wrong, being a part of rhetoric the art of
persuasive communication which has a centuries-old tradition.
Edgett constructed a list of 10 criteria for high standards of ethically desirable
public relations advocacy:
Ethically desirable


1. Evaluation

Detached or objective evaluation of the issue/client/organisation before

determining whether it merits PR advocacy.

2. Priority

Once the PR practitioner has assumed the role of advocate, the interests of
the client or organisation are valued ahead of those of others involved in the

public debate.
3. Sensitivity

Balancing of client priority on the one hand with social responsibility on the

4 Confidentiality

Protection of the clients or organisations rights to confidentiality and

secrecy on matters for which secrets are morally justified.

5. Veracity

Full truthfulness in all matters; deception or evasion can be considered

morally acceptable only under exceptional circumstances when all truthful
possibilities have been ruled out; this implies trustworthiness.

6. Reversibility

If the situation were reversed, the advocate/client/organisation would be

satisfied that it had sufficient information to make an informed decision.

7. Validity

All communications on behalf of the client or organisation are defensible

against attacks on their validity.

8. Visibility

Clear identification of all communications on behalf of the client or

organisation as originating from that source.

9. Respect

Regard for audiences as autonomous individuals with rights to make

informed choices and to have informed participation in decisions that affect
them; willingness to promote dialogue over monologue.

10. Consent

Communication on behalf of the client or organisation is carried out only

under conditions to which it can be assumed all parties consent.

Ethical safeguards can be used

Simons and Jones advocate asking several questions to address ethical issues in
a communication campaign. In our role as communicators and recipients of
persuasive messages, we need to recognise that every persuasive context
involves an ethical dimension: there are no ethics-free situations [especially in
PR practice, which is very subjective] (Simons & Jones, 2011, p. 534).
Questions to ask

What ethical standards should guide our conduct in this case?


Why are we adhering to these standards and not to others?


What should we expect of others?


To whom is ethical responsibility owed?


How will I feel about myself after this communicative act?


Could I justify my act publicly if called on to do so?


How can I judge in retrospect whether my actions were consistent with my

ethical intentions
(Simons & Jones, 2011, p. 534).

The TARES principles of PR ethics

Edgetts ethical criteria for PR advocacy cover some of the same ground as Baker
and Martinsons (2002) five TARES principles of ethical public relations:

Truthfulness, Authenticity, Respect, Equity and Social Responsibility. These

models provide some guidance for practitioners.