Persuasion, Rhetoric, Ethics

June 10, 2010

I was looking for something else and I came across this piece in  the latest Public Relations Review

Porter, L. (2010) ‘Communicating for the good of the state: A post-symmetrical polemic on persuasion in ethical public relations’, Public Relations Review, 36: 127-133.

You don’t have to read into the PR literature for very long before you become aware of James Grunig’s argument that PR practice should aspire to a symmetrical relationship between the organization and its publics.  The implications of this idea is that the ideal practice should seek to neutralize power differentials.  This line of argument has rendered the role of persuasion, long assumed to be the basic function of PR, ethically suspect.  Porter, coming from a rhetorical perspective, challenges this view.  In his perspective the rationality of rhetoric comes from competing efforts to persuade.  In some of my previous work I’ve argued that ‘spin is the rhetoric of the information age’ so it’s an argument that I’ve got a lot sympathy with.  I also like Bruno Latour’s defence of political speech in his Contemporary Political Theory essay

Again there are parallels between the debate in PR and in PD studies.  Conceptualizations of soft power seem to be getting progressively softer to the extent that I’ve heard it being argued that persuasion is too hard to qualify as soft power.  Part of the issue here is what we understand by persuasion.

This leads to the broader issue of the normative bases of public diplomacy.  This questioning of persuasion seems to come out of communications theories of ethics for instance the work of Jurgen Habermas.  I’ve got some doubts about the extent to which this type of work is really useful in the PD context.  The first of these is the fundamental question about the extent to which it really makes sense to work with such strongly rationalist model of ethics.  The second is that there are well established ethical positions in the IR literature that start from a more collective model of ethical practice.  It seems to me that if a normative theory is to have any significance it must have some relevance to the practice that provides criteria for judgement for and that communication ethics seem to raise an impossibly high bar for what is a form of political practice.

Now that opens the requirement for a post on what a relevant set of criteria actually are but that is going to have wait for another day (or month).

Brown, R. (2003) ‘Spinning the World: Spin Doctors, Mediation and Foreign Policy’, pp. 154-72 in F. Debrix and C. Weber (eds) Rituals of Mediation: International Politics and Social Meaning, Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.

Brown, R. (2003) ‘Rethinking Government-Media Relations: Towards a Theory of Spin’, Politicians and the Press: From Co-operation to an Adversary Relationship?, Marburg: ECPR General Conference. [Zap me an e-mail (r.c.m.brown at leeds.ac.uk  if you’d like a copy of this]

Latour, B. (2003) ‘What if we Talked Politics a Little?’, Contemporary Political Theory, 2: 143-64.



  1. […] the original here: Persuasion, Rhetoric, Ethics « Public Diplomacy, Networks and … Comments […]

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