VW, Ethics, and Persuasion

The VW scandal has me thinking. As someone who purchased an implicated car just 10 days before the news broke, I feel manipulated, angry, and a big loss of trust. At the same time, I feel resigned that big business, driven by the hallowed dollar, would resort to this type of sneaky persuasion. However, if a nonprofit had carried out a comparable action, I would be feeling far more than begrudging resignation. We expect more social responsibility from nonprofits, yet nonprofits also use a range of persuasive techniques.

Those of us in the business of changing minds, at least in the nonprofit world, tend to shy away from saying that we are using persuasion. Somehow, it seems a dirty word even though typically we are persuading for the purpose of creating a better future for an individual, a neighborhood, a society, or the planet. Out and out admitting we are using persuasion seems dangerous, like we are flirting with the forces of evil to accomplish good.

Yet, persuasion is exactly what we need to use to accomplish many of our goals. Persuasive processes provide useful cues and shortcuts for supporters when making decisions about how to respond to our messages. And recognizing that we are, in fact, employing persuasive techniques could help us maintain awareness that we need to keep ethics in the forefront.

So when does persuasion go bad? Methods of persuasion range on a continuum from providing information to coercing compliance through propaganda. Gass offers a balanced definition of persuasion as: “the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within a given communication context,”[1] and I would add, per Soules,[2] that this activity can take place either consciously or unconsciously on the part of the sender or receiver.

Propaganda, often considered a more pernicious form of persuasion, is defined by Ellul as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, … through psychological manipulations…”[3] Propaganda involves power: it is consciously employed by those in power in order to gain or maintain compliance of those who are not in the dominant class, or employed by those who aim to become the dominant class, such as in revolution. Fortunately (or some might say unfortunately), nonprofits are rarely operating at this level.

While it is likely that few, if any nonprofits are participating at the intense level of manipulation that VW is, public benefit organizations are still using persuasion. Some have crossed the line of good ethics. We have all seen the stories. Some have done so knowingly while others find themselves caught unawares.

How do you stay clearly on the correct side of the ethical persuasion line? Here are some fairly simple guidelines:

  1. Provide accurate and truthful information, even if it doesn’t shed the best light on you or your organization. Have to share some mishandling of funds? Be honest about what happened, then state how you are rectifying the situation and what you will do to prevent future problems.
  2. Provide a fairly even exchange in benefits between the organization and its supporters. Asking for volunteer time or money? Make sure volunteers and donors feel rewarded in the ways you have promised they would.
  3. Keep compassion, cooperation, and common good at the core of your message. More likely than not, if a message divides or feeds on stereotypes, it could do more harm than good.
  4. Check your gut. If you were on the receiving end of the communication, how would you really feel about it? If your internal guide has mislead you in the past or you’re just not sure, find a trusted colleague with whom you can discuss the situation, especially if he has a neutral viewpoint (e.g. outside of the organization).

Ultimately, ethics depends on perceptions of truth, meaning that the line between ethical and unethical persuasion is not always clear. What may appear ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. However, the more you stay definitively on the correct side of the ethical line, the more trust you build with the public and supporters. If you do venture into a gray area, having a reserve of trust means they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

While I am enraged at the greediness and manipulation of a car company, I hope to never see an equivalent transgression made by a nonprofit working for the public good. We have a lot more to lose than customers or money. Our work depends on public trust, and violation of that trust by one organization can reflect on us all.

[1] Robert H. Gass. (2007). Persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

[2] Soules, M. (2015). Media, persuasion and propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York: Vintage, p. 61.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tom Campbell and Ton Koldewijn, with edits by the author

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