Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach
Purpose – This paper aims to consider whether ethical persuasion can be part of public relations practice. Design/methodology/approach – The paper contends that the critical issue for practitioners is not whether they engage in persuasion, but whether they do so ethically. Accordingly, a definition of ethical persuasion is derived by examining unethical propaganda. The paper then considers what standard might be used to assess the ethics of persuasion. The notion of “the public interest” – ubiquitously linked to ethical practice in public relations – is considered but found to be too elusive to guide the practice individual practitioners. Other more assessable standards are identified, as is a guiding approach to ethics. The approach to ethics adopted in this paper is rule utilitarianism. The methodology of this paper is deductive and derivative analysis, argument and synthesis, drawn from a broad body of literature. Findings – Persuasion can be ethical, and a definition of ethical persuasion is proffered. The public interest is not a standard that individual practitioners can determine, decide, know, or apply to assess the ethics of their practice. Ethical persuasion can, however, be assessed using other standards, discussed in the paper. Consequently, a set of criteria and standards to practicing ethical persuasion is developed. Research limitations/implications – The paper does not extend into a discussion of practical persuasive techniques. Therefore, an extension of this examination could consider a thorough assessment of the ethics of practical persuasive communication techniques. Practical implications – Directly relevant to the daily work of public relations practitioners, communicators, adertisers and marketers, who are interested in acting ethically. The paper provide a basis for a guide to assessing the ethics of persuasive practice. Originality/value – This paper confronts both the question of whether practitioners can use the notion of the public interest to assess the ethics of practice, and also what constitutes ethical (and unethical) persuasion, and considers how persuation can be used ethically.