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.