Question Mark: persuasion, influence and manipulation

In the comments of a previous post Mark asked: “when it comes to presenting a message, how clear are the boundaries between persuasion, influence and manipulation?” As I’m a renowned “PR Spin Twit” (according to the local paper’s nasty “Magpie” column) I feel I’m qualified to tackle that question.

The organisation I work for is a “marketing” and “economic development” body – by our very nature we engage in all three of the above. We promote North Queensland as a tourism, relocation and investment destination – that involves an element of persuasion. All marketing should – otherwise what’s the point. Obviously you have to have faith in your product or you’re getting into a pretty murky area.

Public Relations as an industry has often been dismissed with the pejorative “spin” label. Which is largely unfair. Public Relations should be about taking a product you believe in and presenting it to the public in a way that can be digested. In other words – relating it to the public.

The Queensland Government has been mocked relentlessly for employing more journalism graduates than anybody else in the state – and for having such a massive public relations machine at its disposal. I would argue that the Government has been elected to govern, and make decisions, and we’ve elected them because we believe they’re the best available people for the job – so we should want their point of view on things. Then it’s the media’s job to keep them accountable.

Election ads featuring Lawrence Springborg bumbling through a press conference show the importance of managing your media well – badly handled questions by journalists come back to bite.

If the government of the day can’t persuade us of the benefit of their new policy (eg workchoices) then we can vote them out. I’m down with the importance of persuasion when presenting a message.

Objectivity is important (for the media) – but objectivity doesn’t necessarily mean not subjective to persuasive – it means coming to the facts without prior bias.

From a “spin” perspective you hope that the media accept your angle on things as the best, most objective understanding of them. That usually comes because you or your organisation has a reputation of credibility.

When I studied a subject on persuasive writing at uni I wrote about why pineapple shouldn’t be put on pizza, and why intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in science classes (but in philosophy or religion classes). I remember the basic elements of persuasion we were taught were pathos (use of emotion), stats, and I think having a clearly defined idea of your arguments and the benefits of subscribing to your view. There were probably more. I’ll check at home. But that says more about the mechanics of persuasion than the nature of persuasion – which is simply to move people to your point of view.

If you’re not a decision maker – but you want a decision to be made – you become a lobbyist (or using our politically correct terminology “an advocate”). Here’s where influence comes into play. Again, influence comes (or should come from) from a position of believing what you do is the right thing. As we saw in our recent climate change debate there are many views on one issue, and at the risk of sounding like a relativist, all of them have elements of rightness to them. It is right to care for the environment. It’s also right to care for people. I just tend to think one is more right than the other (and that one does not equal the other) – so I’ll try to influence people that way. By what I say, what I select to use to back up my arguments and how I respond to people with contrary views.

I don’t see a lot of difference between influence and persuasion – except perhaps in the dynamic of power. I’d say that persuasion comes from those in power, and is an exercise of power in order to bring people round to a view. By contrast influence is what you try to do to change the mind of someone in power (or with the ability to act on your wishes). That’s a little simplistic because both words can be used in many contexts. However, in the context of “messaging” that would be the best point of difference between the two.

Manipulation would, if being used in the context of presenting a message, seem to be an abuse of power.

I think though there’s an element of manipulation in any spin. There are plenty of things that our organisation pursues that people disagree with (new refineries anyone?). Some of the “persuasion” we undertake through the local media probably borders on manipulation – we try to make it seem wrongheaded to protest about these things that are putting food on the table for local families. Manipulation tends to misuse pathos, employing overly emotive language, rather than the facts generally employed by “persuasion”. But facts are pretty easily manipulated too.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to a short question. If there’s anything you thought I’ve missed, or you’d like to add, go for it in the comments.


Amy says:

It’s all about using your powers for good and not evil – but what is evil and what is good of course is entirely subjective.

And you can’t just limit these powers to words (your forte) – but also imagery and presentation (mine). A newspaper can use a flattering photo or an unflattering one, presenting text in a cramped and closed up way makes the reader feel intimidated, open text makes you feel relaxed. Even the psychology of colour – to you green now may be tainted and seen as pushy, to a someone else it may make them pick that colour product instead of another. You are being manipulated (or persuaded) every time you look around you.

Nathan says:

I am not sure that the good/evil question is entirely subjective – I wouldn’t take on a PR role with Hitler. Yes. Broken Godwin’s law in record time. I wouldn’t take on a role in PR in any case where I didn’t believe what I was doing was at least open for debate. I’d happily work for the LNP or for Labor in Government – provided my role was to sell the benefits of policy to constituents who are free to make up their minds. So yes it’s subjective – but only within the boundaries of that which is objectively “acceptable”…

There have been a few things at work that I haven’t necessarily been personally supportive of – but have had to “promote” in order to inform the public. For example – I could take or leave some of our marketing initiatives or projects that we lobby for – and I think there are better causes for government investment than the tourism industry. But I’m employed to represent the tourism industry – and its benefits – and so I do. It helps that I think the tourism industry is a good thing (if not the best) and so I can promote it with a good conscience – knowing that health is looked after by its own PR department.

Amy says:


The Queensland Government has been mocked relentlessly for employing more journalism graduates than anybody else in the state – and for having such a massive public relations machine at its disposal.

This annoys me a lot actually, because while you can grab the raw stats and say that QGov employs far too many PR staff etc etc, the truth is a large majority of them (including myself) work for the Gov only in the sense that it pays us. We are employed to promote/inform about services for the public’s benefit that really don’t have anything to do with the particular group in power. The State Library would still exist and would still fulfill the same purpose whether Bligh or Springborg got in, same as the museum and the transport licence section and so on.

Mark says:

Hmm.. given your discussion of definitions above and the complex relationships in persuasive techniques, in hindsight I’d change this to two questions:

Is it right, wrong, or neutral to change someone’s opinion without them knowing you’re playing with their mind? – using cognitive science techniques to embed branding, evoke an emotion in the visual and aural stimulus and association you provide.

A further question is where the ethics lie in presenting a message (in whatever medium) that you either do not have a position on, or are personally against – I think this has been in the comments. If you are neutral on a position, should you to come to a conclusion before promoting a side?

Finally, a comment on the issue of “power” in persuasion. This is probably fundamental to you “message” people – but it’s only just occurred to me, I’ll blame IT for it’s historical and stereotypical lack of caring about communication to those who don’t understand immediately or agree with your point of view (ie persuasion).

I think you hinted at the Classical Greek understanding of rhetoric to define the persuasive technique – ethos, pathos, logos (IIRC Ethos – street cred of the presenter. Logos – content/logic of argument, whether strong or weak, and Pathos – connection you develop with the “audience”).

If you tie in different types of power eg French and Raven’s – “Legitimate, Referent, Expert, Reward, Coercive, etc..” then you would likely be able to affect one or more of the above persuasive elements. Of course, this is almost reducing it to an equation ~ E+L+P = persuasion, and monkeying the variables.

But it seems to makes sense to the messaging crowd – note the use of “celebrities” in marketing to increase the “ethos” and possibly “pathos” of the “message” – support me, use me. Having a specialist gives extra “expert” cred, and hopefully a better “logos”- etc, and so on.

Is that what’s happening, albeit at a simplistic level?

Nathan says:

Love the equation. It pretty much sums it up.

Amy says:

Is it right, wrong, or neutral to change someone’s opinion without them knowing you’re playing with their mind? – using cognitive science techniques to embed branding, evoke an emotion in the visual and aural stimulus and association you provide.

Perhaps it is also up to the viewer to educate themselves about the techniques used in advertising/marketing and take some sort of active role in their viewing/listening instead being passive receptors. The Gruen Transfer should be compulsory viewing as far as I am concerned.

Decoding/sending messages is an essential part of being human (ie reading the emotions on your mother’s face, understanding tone and its effect on meaning, knowing that my stomach is grumbling, therefore I am hungry, using emotional blackmail to get what we want as a child…), but it we seem to be far less good at evaluating/analysing it when it comes to television/media and actually allow needs/wants/fears to be created for us (even though the thought had never occurred to us at all).

A few examples:

A fear ad:
The toilet cleaner ad which features a new mum being visited by all her friends to say hello to the baby. One asks if she can use the bathroom and she has a moment of horror before realising that its all okay, she uses this brand of toilet cleaner.
Message: A dirty toilet means I am bad person and a failure as a mother. (I personally find these ads particularly evil.)

A need ad:
A certain cosmetic company advertising anti-wrinkle cream – ‘because you’re worth it’.
Message: If I don’t buy this cream I am not a worthy person.

A want ad:
A woman uses a cleaning product, it cleans the kitchen in a breeze, and she can then join in with her family having a wonderful, fun time.
Message: If I buy that product, I will be as happy and content as that family.

Of course there are sophisticated and subtle versions, and obvious ones (a mainstay ad in our local paper is the one reading: ‘are all your friends whispering about your dirty blinds’) but people need to equip themselves with the knowledge to evaluate all the messages they are getting and realise they are not necessarily true.

Whether or not this is a right or wrong situation is another question.

Realistically, it could be judged entirely differently by the different parties: A company wants to sell a product and thus expand its business (good or bad, depending on perspective) – the person buying the product might find it really helpful (good) or find it puts them further in debt for no good reason (bad). The ad used to sell this product could then be judged as either a manipulator – forcing the person to have a desire that wasn’t real, or an informer – letting an interested party know about something that could be of use to them.

There are other issues at play as well. If you as a copywriter or designer or marketer work for a company you have an obligation as an employee to that company to do the work they give you, even if you disagree with the content (unless it is illegal).
BUT perhaps then you find a job with a company that you believe does good work or sells useful products (easier said than done in this climate I acknowledge).