The milky way approach to ethics and communication theories

In their latest seminars, the Bournemouth University advertising undergraduates I am teaching about PR theory and practice presented the four models that are the “dominant paradigm” in public relations study.  In groups, they were asked to explain a particular model, compare it to the others, identify contemporary examples, and reflect on its appropriateness and any ethical concerns.

In their next session, our CIPR Advanced Certificate and Diploma students are looking at communications theory and rhetorical perspectives on public relations respectively.  Constructing communications messages (whether engaging in a one way or two way process) is an important skill – and the way we do this can have a lot of power.

The ethical dimension, that we may not always be conscious about, is the way we are selective about what we say.  This applies with each of the Grunig & Hunt models:

  • are we more interested in getting attention regardless of the truth (press agentry)
  • aiming to convey factual (although largely favourable) information (public information)
  • using research and persuasive theory to influence others (2-way asymmetric)
  • or engaging in a dialogue to achieve mutual understanding (2-way symmetric)

It is a factor lacking from a lot of the classic communication theories – whether they are the basic linear (Laswell’s: who says what to whom with what effect?) or mediated models (eg Westley-McLean).  But ethics is at the heart of considering .

Seth Godin’s Blog: Conceal vs. Reveal points to the merits of being open rather than seeking to obfuscate – and he also links to which reports on Monsanto’s success in lobbying state governments (despite failing at the federal level earlier this year) to prevent consumers being informed on milk containers that it is produced from cows that have never been treated with the growth hormone, rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin. 

is the only company approved in the US to sell rbST under the brand name . If there is no problem associated with its use (as claimed by – although it is banned in Canada and Europe), why lobby to conceal information?

rbSTFacts.org, which claims to be “a clearinghouse of scientifically-validated information about rbST” was developed “as a collaborative project by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the Washington Dairy Products Commission (WDPC), a Washington state agency”:

Its intent is to provide factual, science-based, unbiased information about rbST facts to consumers, health care professionals, scientists, educators, news media, dairy producers, dairy processors, dairy cooperatives and food retailers..

(havemilk.com) was established to build demand for milk and other dairy product, so is not objective. The language on its site is emotive: see “” – and highly selective.  A similar perspective is evident at rbSTfacts:

The development and use of rbST has been controversial. Certain issue-oriented advocacy groups – including those drawn from the animal rights and environmental movements, as well as “pure food” advocates and those opposed to the use of biotechnologies in the production of food – have been vocal in their criticism of rbST. Unfortunately, the arguments these opponents have put forward in their attempts to persuade others to their point of view have not always been based in scientific fact, or have constituted misunderstandings or distortions of scientific fact. Those asserting the safety and efficacy of rbST – including scientific institutions, government authorities and the dairy and pharmaceutical industries – have seen their reassurances dismissed and their credibility attacked. The debate between these two sides has played out largely in a news media that thrives on conflict and takes little responsibility for ascertaining and reporting the facts.

At least with a rhetorical approach, the argument is that people have an opportunity to consider all sides of an issue and make up their own minds.  We can believe the “official” information – or search more widely for a balanced view (if that is feasible or possible). 

An interesting question is how communications theories and ethics apply when the public relations function of an organisation uses lobbying to prevent information being available.  The approach may well have been a persuasive one in respect of government relations – but it is a total denial of communications to the wider public.

Although, of course, debate can take place online where such information can be found, in this example, the most direct push medium for communicating the message (the actual milk packaging) is prohibited.  Can that be ethical?

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

2 thoughts on “The milky way approach to ethics and communication theories”

  1. From the power of web 1.0 when activist created web sites (like McSpotlight) and most of the debate was in Usenet (very geeky), we have moved a long way into a rhetorical commons online. The sheer numbers, range of platforms and channels involved means that transparency becomes just about the only defence left. Transparency also stokes debate and this means that ‘opinion formers’ who are qualified to comment now have greater value in public relations.

    Obfuscation is unravelled in front of such commentators such as journalists who are becomming very capable of monitoring the third view.

    Is this forced ethics? Where does the practitioners sit? Is it ethical to say ‘you will be found out’ or is the PR role more important as a management activity creating corporate value systems?

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