Propaganda is a method of communication which is used to influence the attitudes of specific groups of individuals towards a particular cause or position (Propaganda, 2010).
In essence, instead of a sense of impartiality propaganda actually presents information in such a way so as to influence an audience through selective dissemination of information in order to create an emotional rather than a rational response to certain issues (Propaganda, 2010).
For example in the case of the Australia’s cancellation of the Fuel Watch program Senator Xenaphon utilized propaganda stating that Fuel Watch was not an effective means of helping consumers stating the need to tackle the big four oil companies using another method, what most people fail to notice is that he omits the details the successes the Fuel Watch program actually had which indicates possible ulterior motives on his part (Battersby, 2008).
His actions resulted in the end of the National Fuel Watch scheme which to an extent could be considered a step back from giving consumers more control over how they purchase gasoline (VACC, 2008). What must be understood is that propaganda utilizes elements such as loaded questions, partial synthesis or even lying by omission in order to gain the desired response (Wilcox & Cameron 2009).
One use of effective propaganda can be seen in the online article “Cultural Cringe where the writer selectively introduces facts which lambasts and derides the Australian video presentation for its World Cup 2022 bid (Hunter, 2010).
Throughout the article there is little mention of the creativity that went into the video, the unique approach that Australia took or the overwhelming positive response viewers had for the commercial, rather, what is mentioned is nothing more than a continuous tirade focused against commercial itself (Hunter, 2010).
It must be noted though the use of the term propaganda, as stated by Wilcox, has been connected to falsehoods, lies and deception (Wilcox & Cameron, 2009). It is true though that propaganda used by various PR departments have been utilized in various political campaigns as a form of political warfare where detrimental facts on rival candidates are released to the general public (Propaganda, 2010).
On the other hand propaganda is also used in various public information campaigns by governments for positive effects such as the Australian governments fight against illegal downloads connoting their use with stealing and its use by the U.S. during the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as a supposed “war on terror”. In essence the use of propaganda and its effects can be associated with the ethical reasoning behind its usage.
The ethics of persuasion
Wilcox states “perception is interpreted as being used in the following manner: to change or neutralize hostile opinions, to crystallize latent opinions and positive attitudes, and finally to conserve favorable opinions” (Wilcox & Cameron, 2009). As such the importance of persuasion to successful contemporary public relations all boils down to its ability to influence individuals towards a certain train of thought.
As such it can be stated that persuasion shapes perceptions and thus the way people interpret and accept information. As seen in the examples related to propaganda, persuasion should always attempt to follow a certain ethical guideline when used in Public Relations.
The concept of corporate social responsibility should be considered an integral part of most PR practices due to its ability to sway public opinion either in favor for or against a particular company (Berenbeim, 2006). For PR departments what should be considered good for the company should also be directly proportional to what is beneficial for consumers.
In such cases where the good of the company is put above that of the consumer that in itself is in direct violation of the ethical guidelines of persuasion (Messina, 2007). One example of honest and effective persuasion can be seen in the Bowen article summarizing the necessity for the fuel watch scheme and outlining exactly what it entails (Bowen, 2008).
On the other hand an example in Australia of the ethical violation of persuasion is the production and sale of vitamin water by Glacéau in which the company states that the water being sold has been “enriched” with vitamins in order to aid people attain a healthy lifestyle (Adam, 2008).
Far from actually contributing to a person’s health and well being vitamin water and its additives could potentially cause health problems in the future, especially if the product is consumed on a regular basis as a replacement for water (Glaceau lands Coke in deep water, 2010).
On average a single bottle of vitamin water produced by Glacéau contains 32 grams of crystalline fructose which is nothing more than a derivative of high fructose corn syrup which numerous scholarly articles and independent journals have linked to the rapid onset of obesity in various populations.
In this case not only is the company marketing drinks with vitamins which might not even be absorbed but the amount of sugars present in each drink is actually detrimental for the future health of a person especially if they replace ordinary water with vitamin drinks.
This example is a clear case of what not to use persuasion for, not only is it in direct violation of corporate social responsibility but convincing people to think that a drink is healthy when in fact it could cause health is problems is highly unethical by most standards.
Persuasion should be done when either trying to establish an idea, state relevant facts or modes of thought, it should not be used to directly lie to an audience and convince them to do something which could possibly endanger their well being (Messina, 2007).
Based on the information presented it can be stated without question that effective persuasion truly does shape perceptions and thus the way people interpret and accept information which makes it an important tool in contemporary public relations. It must be noted though that just because a persuasive argument is effective does not make it ethical.
Examples such as the case of vitamin water show that at times persuasive arguments are used in such a way that their results are actually detrimental towards people. It is up to people taking PR whether to discern through proper ethical reasoning whether what they use persuasive skills for will result in either beneficial or detrimental results.
Adam, C. 2008, Coke uncorks water brand in Australia, B&T Magazine, 58, 2646, p. 3, Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.
Battersby, L. 2008, Senate kills off FuelWatch, The Age, p. 1. Web.
Berenbeim, R. E. 2006, ‘Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility’, Vital Speeches of the Day, 72, 16/17, pp. 501-504, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.
Bowen, C. (MP) 2008, A national fuelwatch scheme, joint media release with Hon. Kevin Rudd MP, Australian Government Treasury, p. 1. Web.
Glaceau lands Coke in deep water 2010, Marketing Week (01419285), 33, 31, p. 12, Vocational and Career Collection, EBSCOhost.
Hunter, T. 2010, Cultural cringe: World Cup roo has critics hopping mad, The Age Online, p. 1. Web.
Messina, A. 2007, ‘Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach’, Journal of Communication Management, 11, 1, pp. 29-52, Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.
Propaganda 2010, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, p. 1, Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost.
VACC 2008, VAAC welcomes the end of the national Fuelwatch Scheme, media release, p. 1. Web.
Wilcox, D. L. & Cameron, G. T. 2009, Public relations: strategies and tactics, 9th edn, p. 229 – 242,(international edn), Pearson Education, Boston, Massachusetts.