The ethics of persuasion: What public relations can learn from two old sociologists and a PR prophet

During a long bike ride yesterday, I got to thinking about the late Pat Jackson. I invoke Pat’s name a lot on this site, since he is the “prophet” most responsible for my world-view in public relations. If you don’t know of Pat’s contributions, read about them here.

Pat understood that to gain the respect of top management, public relations must move behavior. CEOs care about action, not awareness. PR’s mission, said Pat, was to change the human outcomes. Behavior is the ultimate measure of our success — and in the end, it’s the only one that matters.

Sounds pretty sinister, huh? Don’t worry. Pat was as ethical as the day is long. He knew that we can facilitate change only when we foster trust. He understood, decades before the first blogger touted it, that marketing is all about relationships. Pat believed in “transparency” back when we called it “honesty.”

Pat also believed — as did his friend Ed Bernays — that social science theory could be used responsibly to alter human behavior. But he never endorsed the hyperbole or exaggeration typical of marketing campaigns. As Pat liked to say, “People want to be served, not sold.”

While the “right” to persuade is assumed in this democratic system of ours, you don’t win over customers with nonsense words like “state-of-the-art” or “revolutionary.” And you don’t earn trust by masking the intent of your message or the identity of the messenger, both common tactics in the digital world.

But how often do we urge our clients to test campaigns against a moral gauge? That’s my lesson today, should you choose to hang around for all 1100+ words of it.

I learned this lesson from two sociologists who wrote about it back in the 1970s. Donald Warwick and Herbert Kelman didn’t label it, so I’ve dubbed this ethics tool the “Moral Continuum for the Ethics of Persuasion.” Academic enough for you?

The Continuum is nothing more than a scale to helps us judge the transparency and authenticity of our PR and marketing strategies. You simply ask yourself: Where does my creative idea, marketing strategy, advertising copy, etc., fit along the continuum between the proverbial “good” and “evil”? (Oh, yeah. I added the good and evil part, too, as these are hardly terms befitting serious academic research.) The model — as I envision it — looks like this:

Let me explain the categories. The rest is up to you.

Coercion. Your strategy is coercive when the target group is forced to adopt a behavior under threat of greater harm. It effectively eliminates choice. I recall one such program in the early days of fiber-optic cable. Time-Warner announced a plan to place cable boxes atop every subscriber’s television at a cost of about $4 a month — $12 in my case, since we have 3 TVs. Prior to this, the black boxes were required only to access premium channels and pay-per-view, neither of which I cared about.

T-W’s strategy — dubbed by insiders as the “forced option” — made the boxes mandatory. As a result, every customer would have access to HBO, Showtime, et. al., and certainly more customers would use pay-per-view — especially the high-priced porn. Refuse the box and your cable service was reduced to local channels only, the same as you’d get from a rooftop antenna.

TW’s “forced option” was coercive, since it left the customer with no viable options — at least not in a modern world where information is vital to existence. BTW, satellite dishes at the time cost a small fortune and were 6-feet in diameter. To complete the story, several municipalities complained to the FCC, which eventually ruled against TW, forcing the company to offer a reasonable selection sans the box.

Coercion is possible, sometimes even easy, when the company holds a monopoly as cable did before the mini-dish. But it’s also possible to use coercion to achieve utilitarian good. Seat-belt laws are an example of how coercion achieves positive ends while limiting free choice. But when you consider strategies that limit choice of your stakeholders, consider the moral ramifications, and resist the temptation to coerce.

Environmental manipulation changes some aspect of the target group’s surroundings with a goal of inhibiting free choice. PR campaigns to limit smoking in public areas eliminated tobacco use in most workplaces and public venues. It’s a case in which positive outcomes emerged from manipulation of the environment. But not all approaches serve the greater good.

Companies can “sneak up” on us using environmental manipulation. For example, I bought an electric sander that I believed to be the perfect tool — at least until I had to buy replacement paper, available only from the manufacturer of the sander and at an exorbitant price. Doh! Let the buyer beware, indeed!

When I worked in the beverage business, manufacturers found ways to manipulate allocation of supermarket shelf space in favor of their own products, thus altering the environment to limit consumer choices. Profitable? You bet. Ethical? Hmmm. But it’s done all the time.

Psychic manipulation involves attempts to alter perceptions of the target group to create the belief that choices are limited when, in fact, they are not. Psychic manipulation is the stock in trade of advertisers and marketers. Choosy mothers choose Jif, right? And if your hubby has “ring around the collar,” shame on you, little woman!

The rational consumer understands when advertisers are messing with the psyche. That’s the theory, at least. But if we are rational, how to you explain consumer preference for brand-name over-the-counter pain relievers? Same stuff, higher price. Or the absolute vanity that drives a person to pay $500 for a handbag or $150 for a pair of sneakers? If this is free choice, you can have it.

Puffery is, in fact, the core of most great marketing campaigns. If you fall for it, well, maybe there IS a sucker born every minute. While it’s entirely legal, puffery is the primary reason I never prospered in the marcom world. I guess I’m just not good at psychic manipulation.

Facilitation. Ahhh. You know, some of the best words in the English language start with F, “facilitation” and “foster” being my two favorites. Facilitation — if it’s a form of persuasion at all — is designed to foster free choice that will satisfy the desires of the target group. The policy of Progressive Insurance to give new customers a range of quotes, including those of competitors, is the embodiment of facilitation (though I honestly don’t trust it — and I’m not sure why).

Employers who offer a range of benefit plans (mine included) often present employees with side-by-side comparisons to facilitate our choices of co-pays and deductibles. It helps. My favorite outfitter, Campmor, let’s me compare features of competing products. Campmor earns my business by focusing on me, not on their vendors and suppliers or the hype contained in their brochures.

Think about it. Facilitation was the promise of Web 2.0. It was the promise of the Cluetrain Manifesto (“Marketing is a conversation.”) But if all products can be brought to market without persuasive messages, then we don’t need marketing communications at all, do we? Hmm. A world without marketers? Let me savor that one for awhile.

Back to Pat Jackson. In a free market, absolute coercion and absolute facilitation seldom occur. The marketplace keeps coercion in check; marketers keep facilitation in check, as they’d rather we not have the whole story.

Since we’re all in the business of shaping human behaviors, it behooves us to subject our campaigns to ethical inspection. If we don’t, the marketplace — bloggers in particular — almost certainly will. The more we can drive our organizations toward a more symmetrical model of public relations, the less we’ll have to worry about manipulation in our messages.

That, my friends, is the core of Mr. Jackson’s legacy: Focus on the relationship and the profits will follow.

See you in about 10 days. I’m goin’ fishin’ — another of my favorite “F” words!

10 Responses to The ethics of persuasion: What public relations can learn from two old sociologists and a PR prophet

  1. Blair Boone says:

    So, at 10:42 AM I sent you an email on an entirely different subject and included a brief digression on “puffery” as a legal term in advertising speech as regulated by the Supreme Court and the FTC. At a little after 2:00 PM the same day I see you using and linking the same term in a post. But do I get a footnote? A brief nod? A wink? You PR types are pretty sneaky. If it weren’t for us ad guys to keep you honest, I don’t know what the poor hapless public would do.

    Of course, I’ve been quoting you for the last 20 years when trying to explain to clients why and when they need to hire a PR pro. But do they listen? No, they just say, “C’mon, you can write a press release, can’t you?” And I can. I just can’t convince them it’s usually a waste of time and money, no matter how many times I tell them, “Bill Sledzik’s a real PR pro, and Bill says . . .”

    Enjoy the fishing. Sorry I can’t join you this trip.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:


    I owe you a footnote, indeed, but they don’t do that in blogs. How about a “hat tip”? Another of the really dumbass terms I picked up in the blogosphere.

    Fact is, I had that post 95% drafted, with mentions of exaggeration and hyperbole, but not “puffery.” Your note provided the perfect triad, not to mention a nice link to a lesson on Wikipedia.

    Of course, I tell people when they need a good ad/marketing writer that it’s not what I do, but that “I know a guy” name of Blair Boone, and he can really do this stuff.

    P.S. I wish I could fish, but it’s storming like hell. Can’t win.

  3. I am new here – to this wonderful blog. Matter of fact, it was my congressman who introduced me to this site. This article is worth its weight in gold. Where can I find more information like this?

    I must admit, I am a PR groupie. I deleted “Tom” on my myspace page (greatimageltd) to put up Edward Bernays. I ran to San Diego to meet both Allen Center and Glen Broom of the PR textbook fame. Same with Otis Baskin, but fortunately he was in Phoenix at one time.

    Also, Chester Burger; please look him up at I started PR at an AT&T subsidiary, so I knew about Arthur Page. Even met Curt Linke, now at John Deere, when I was starting PR in Denver. But I have never heard of Pat Jackson. Bless you for this knowledge.

    Richard Kelleher

  4. What a great blog to come across in a routine scan of Technorati! I am a PR consultant and instructor — and Pat Jackson was my favourite mentor. Among the many reasons he should still be with us is the fact that his behaviour-related thinking was so fundamental to effective, ethical PR practice.

    If this was true in the late ’70s when I first met Pat, it is even more so now, when “integrated communications” (for all its effectiveness in some ways) is blurring the line between PR and marketing, and the Greedy ’80s have left us with an obsession with the next quarter’s results at the expense of social and human principles. (I could go on . . .!) Jim Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model sometimes seems as far away as it ever was.

    I have just finished teaching a course called Basics of Public Relations at McGill University, where the class got into lengthy discussions of ethics and persuasion. I wish I’d had your continuum to show them. May I steal it for a future class?

    I’ll be back. Hope you get sunshine and fish soon!

    Elizabeth Hirst, APR, FCPRS

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    When I post it on the blog, it’s there for all to use, Elizabeth. Of course, it really belongs to Warwick & Kelman.

  6. Jeremy Mann says:

    I found this blog to be very interesting. I am often fascinated by the mind of the consumer and the factors that comprise consumer decison-making. When media vehicle channels become cluttered with overtly persuasive messages, consumers are pushed away. In this new age of social networking tools, open communication forums (there are blogs for EVERYTHING), and a multitude of ways to “get in the know”, maybe the consumer is becoming less easily bought/sold by those selling the service or product. If the consumer is harder to cajole, marketers might find a positive return if they wear their true colors, throw on their ethics cap, and put away the puffery. I realize this could go in an opposite direction, but my idealistic, college-level mind favors the utopian idea that the consumer favors facilitation to coercion and the checks and balances of blogging/open communication keep marketers on their toes.

    I could rant on and on, but I was just posting to express my satisfaction in this blog, and through reading it I have felt stimulated to read about the genius of Pat Jackson. Bill, I really like your continuum and all of your examples. Great blog.

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