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Manipulation, exploitation and misinformation

Question : Discuss the idea that persuasion is a process of manipulation, exploitation and misinformation; thus its use in public relations can never be justified

Persuasive messages are part of people’s everyday lives. These messages take shape in many forms, ranging from small persuasive messages such as the way a product is packaged, to the highly persuasive nature of cults or a powerful and influential speaker. A US magazine ‘Advertising Age’ estimates the average American is exposed to over five thousand persuasive messages a day (Larson 1998, p.5). Are we being manipulated, exploited and misinformed by these messages? Persuasion is defined as "a transactional process among two or more persons whereby the management of symbolic meaning reconstructs reality, resulting in voluntary change in beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviours." by Johnston (1994, p.7). Levitt (1974 cited Johannesen 1996 p.41) suggests "the human audience demands symbolic interpretation of everything it sees and knows". Symbolic interpretation could involve manipulation, misinformation and exploitation because it might mean not telling things exactly as they are; yet according to Levitt, people not only accept this but expect this. This essay will focus on the role manipulation, exploitation and misinformation have as part of the persuasive process. The concept of propaganda in public relations will also be addressed in relation to manipulation and misinformation. The implications of susceptibility to persuasion will be discussed in relation to using persuasion to exploit. The essay will also examine the important role of ethics in persuasion.

Persuasive communication scholars Bettinghaus and Cody define manipulation in persuasion as "the changing of the behaviour of others through conscious attempts to change their behaviour" (1987 p.13). Bettinghaus and Cody go on to discuss that manipulation is possibly a word to the same meaning as education, socialisation and rehabilitation. Therefore, manipulation is not necessarily an undesirable thing; it simply has negative connotations attached to it. Perhaps most people see being manipulated as being persuaded to change for the worse. In the situation of trying to wean a drug addict off of heroin, for example, persuasion would be regarded as a good and right thing to do. Few may question that manipulating the addict is a bad thing in these circumstances. This example highlights Bettinghaus and Cody’s argument. In the context of public relations, a company may be trying to improve its reputation or even trying to put positive ‘spin’ on to a negative issue by manipulating their publics. For example, an environmental crisis caused by an organisation may require public relations to manipulate the situation. Manipulation could be seen as deception in these circumstances if the company deals with the situation by not telling the public the truth or omits important details. This probably isn’t regarded as so acceptable. On the other hand, PR practitioners work for a wide variety of companies. Perhaps ‘manipulating’ certain publics on behalf of a charity to persuade them to donate would not be looked upon in the same, rather cynical, way. People need persuading to gain awareness of issue otherwise they may not act. The issue regarding manipulation and persuasion may not be whether or not manipulation exists as part of persuasion, scholars and definitions of the subject have concluded that it is probably is. However, is it acceptable to try and manipulate a person without them realising that they are being manipulated? Stauber and Rampton make a distinction between advertising and PR practices, effectively suggesting that adverts are more ethical than PR practices because advertisements are overtly manipulative and the public is aware of this. Certain PR activities such as masquerading adverts as news stories are covert manipulation (1995 p.15).

Propaganda is generally regarded as a more negative vein of persuasion and is often associated with manipulation, misinformation and exploitation rather than everyday persuasion. Jowett and O’Donnell define propaganda as "the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perception, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers to desired intent of the propagandist". (1986 p.16) They add: "the purpose is not to promote mutual understanding, but rather to promote his or her own objectives." (1986 p.34). Politics can often be described as propagandist, which can often involve PR advisers. For example, during an election campaign, the candidate could be said to be promoting his or her own objectives. However, it can be argued that they are trying to gain the mutual understanding of the public to gain their support. Manipulation and misinformation could be factors in this situation if the candidate makes false claims or doesn’t tell the whole truth in order to gain this support. From another perspective, scholar Johannesen explains, "propaganda is a campaign of mass persuasion" (1996 cited Larson 1998 p.38). This suggests that persuasion by organisations through advertising, marketing and public relations are, in fact, propagandist and not merely persuasive. Furthermore, Stauber and Rampton (1995 p.18) suggest that people understand that adverts are propaganda, which in turn implies that propaganda is an acceptable tool to use, if is to be assumed that advertising is an acceptable thing to do. However, an important point in regard to public relations is PR campaigns where adverts are disguised as news and sent out in press release form to the media. These adverts in a news story structure may not be recognised as propaganda to audiences. Stauber and Rampton also make the point that if the public are educated about "manipulative uses of rhetoric" then persuaders and PR companies "lose their ability to mislead and manipulate" (1995 p.15). It is therefore the public’s ignorance on the tactics used in public relations that allow them to be manipulated.

Johannesen suggests a comprehensive list of what tactics in persuasion or propaganda could be regarded as unethical. Such points like "Do not deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose" and "do not pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate" (cited Larson 1998 p.40). Following each of the guidelines outlined could effectively eliminate manipulation, exploitation and misinformation from the persuasive process. However, deception and false certainty may be what some PR practitioners do from day-to-day. Their role may be to improve the reputation of a company by not revealing all, or misinforming, the public. Some PR practitioners could argue that this is bad practice and it is always better to fully inform your publics and never to lie. The Public Relations Society of America has a code of professional standards for the practice of public relations. There are seventeen guidelines altogether. When considering the concept of misinformation or lying, the guidelines state, "A member shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information" and "a member shall exemplify high standards of honesty and integrity" (cited Cutlip et al 1994 p.153). Whilst these guidelines are ideal, because they are not enforceable by law they may not always be adhered to. Misinformation may sometimes be a part of persuasion and it may sometimes be a part of public relations. Misinformation could be regarded as acceptable in extreme circumstances. Consider, for example, a time where public safety may be at risk. The government may decide to omit certain facts they know to ensure the public does not panic and to persuade them that everything is under control. This would be an example of misinformation in persuasion. However, others would argue the public has a right to all the available information. At the same time, there may be ambiguity of what people actually need to know.

The differences between persuasion and brainwashing should be highlighted when it comes to discussing whether persuasion involves exploitation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘exploit’ as "make use of unfairly; benefit unjustly from the work or actions of". Therefore, exploitation may be an issue among those who do not know when somebody, or indeed an organisation, is trying to benefit from them or gain their support for an issue unfairly or unjustly. This could be achieved through brainwashing. According to Johnston (1994 p.15), brainwashing is "an involuntary change in thought" whereas persuasion is "a voluntary change in thought". Johnston argues it is very difficult "if not impossible" to alter somebody’s thoughts, beliefs or attitudes involuntary. If brainwashing were possible, it would only be among those with very low self-identity (1994 p.16). Example of groups who may have low self-identity could be children or those who are mentally handicapped. The argument is that if we are capable of making good judgements, perhaps unethical persuasion or propaganda is tolerable so long as we can make moral decisions ourselves. The real problem of exploitative persuasion lays in people whose ethical systems or self-identity is not strong enough to resist unethical or immoral persuasion. For example, it could be argued that public relations activities designed to influence the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours or children are not acceptable as their value systems and sense of self-identity is not yet developed enough.

In conclusion, persuasion is a fundamental part of society; it is impossible to remove it. Misinformation and exploitation can sometimes, but not always, form a part of the persuasive process. Manipulation is a slightly more ambiguous word and seems to exist in all types of persuasion to varying extents. Whether public relations activities are seen as a part persuasion or propaganda, both can essentially be manipulative or exploitative. PR activities could be justified if the actions are ethical and reasoned. Where children or others susceptible to persuasion are involved, one must rely on the value system of the PR practitioner, company or persuader to do the ’right thing’.

Word Count: 1,550


BETTINGHAUS, E., AND CODY, M., 1987. Persuasive Communication 4th Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

CORBETT, E., 1965. Classical rhetoric for the modern student. In: C. LARSON, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. 8th Ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 29.

CUTLIP, S., CENTER., A., AND BROOM, G., 1994. Effective Public Relations. 7th Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

JOHANNESEN, R.L, 1996. Perspectives on Ethics in Persuasion. In: C.LARSON, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. 8th Ed. Belmont: Wadworth, 27-56

JOHNSTON, D., 1994. The Art and Science of Persuasion. Dubuque: Brown and Benchmark

JOWETT, G., AND O’DONNELL, V., 1986. Propaganda and Persuasion. London: Sage

LARSON, C., 1998. Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. 8th Ed. Belmont: Wadsworth

STAUBER, J., AND RAMPTON, S., 1995. Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and The Public Relations Industry. Canada :Common Courage Press

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