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  • Writer's pictureSaurabh Nagpal

Propaganda, persuasion, and PR in Sport: A literature review and analysis of two case studies

Q. “To what extent can recent actions and statements of sportsmen and women in the political sphere, be viewed as propaganda, and to what extent can they be viewed as persuasion? Discuss using at least two case studies.”

To determine the nature of actions and statements of sportspersons in the political sphere, this essay would look at what is meant by concepts such as the public sphere, persuasion, and propaganda. After doing so, it would attempt to differentiate between persuasion and propaganda while also inspecting the ethics involved in these forms of communication in order to establish a definition of ethical persuasion. To discuss these topics and advance its arguments, the essay would draw upon the works of Habermas, Moloney, Messina, Fawkes, Porter, Bakir et al among several other Public Relations (PR) scholars. Following the literature review, the essay would seek to apply the arguments and theories discussed in the review to two recent real-life case studies of actions undertaken and statements made by sportspersons in the political sphere. Finally, the essay would conclude that the extent to which the actions and statements of sportspersons can be perceived as propaganda or persuasion depends on the context in which they are made. However, to correctly identify this, one must have clarity about what these terms mean and what are the indicators of morality for mass communication. The conclusion would also underline that while PR activities contain the potential to subvert and uplift society in doing so, it is also a reality that PR practices have played a noteworthy role in refeudalizing the public sphere.

Jürgen Habermas’ (1997) notion of the public sphere continues to remain a fundamental concept in PR and related studies. He conceives the idea of the public sphere as a social space where public opinion is formed through critical discussions on socio-politico-economic issues among citizens. Ideally, this arena should be open to all citizens and their voices must be heard and valued.

However, Habermas (1989) claims that after the 1950s, PR activities have saturated the public sphere in the West, and this has played a role in the refeudalization of the public sphere. By refeudalization, he means that modern society is losing its democratic ethos and deteriorating towards the feudal values of the past. For him, modern PR is a protector of the interests of the powerful, ruling elites and the status quo, and hence, an enabler of refeudalization (L’Etang 2009; Moloney 2006).

Ramsey (2015), taking into account the well-renowned feminist critique (eg: Fraser 1995) that highlights the lack of inclusion in Habermas’ public sphere, understands the public sphere as the political sphere, thereby also bypassing the public-private binary that has been dismantled by the feminists and the postmodernists, among others. Ramsey (2015: 65) maintains that it is the ‘normative dimension’ of Habermas’ public sphere that is still in currency, rather than the sociological or historical basis of it. Hence, it becomes necessary that any study of the public/political sphere, which has been refeudalized, involves looking at PR practices in detail.

Edward Bernays, alongside Ivy Lee, is regarded as the so-called founding father of modern PR (Moloney 2006). Highly influenced by the works of his uncle Sigmund Freud and impressed by the use of propaganda in World War I, he was a proponent of utilizing ‘mass psychology as a social control technique’ (Moloney 2006: 46). Before World War II, the notion of propaganda did not entail pejorative connotations (Fawkes 2014). However, by the 1960s, the linkage between PR and propaganda was not perceived positively in liberal, democratic societies (Moloney 2006). Nonetheless, in 1984, Grunig and Hunt provided a positivist framework of PR, which proved vital in fracturing the connection between PR and propaganda (Moloney 2006). They posit four models of PR that indicate a linear, evolutionary progression of PR ‘supposedly transcending from crude publicity to sophisticated two-way communications activity’ (McKie and Munshi 2007: 125).

The impact of Grunig and Hunt’s work has been immense on PR studies. Much of the contemporary practice has been legitimised because of their models (McKie and Munshi 2007). However, there are scholars who criticise Grunig and Hunt for advancing a naive, positivist, and one-sided view in favour of PR (eg: Miller and Dinan 2009). Porter (2010) critiques them for dismissing the role of persuasion from PR and presenting it as unethical and harmful. Messina (2007) goes one step further and indicts them for linking persuasion to propaganda.

Although the issues of propaganda are absent from ‘core’ PR texts and persuasion has been marginalized (Fawkes 2007: 315), Fawkes argues (2014: 198) that persuasion should be central to the ‘discussions of the relationship between public relations and propaganda’. Adding to this point, Bakir et al (2019) observe that PR scholarship has a tendency to distance PR practice away from propaganda because of the problematic history of the word. Nonetheless, Moloney (2006) contends that the two share a close relationship, while Porter (2010: 128) notes that ‘persuasion is inevitable’ in PR, and Soules (2015) stresses that persuasion and propaganda exist simultaneously in the public/political sphere.

In light of these arguments, it becomes essential to define and differentiate between persuasion and propaganda, which the paper will attempt to do so now.

Fawkes (2014: 196) notes that many critics consider most PR to be propaganda, but she refutes this view, labelling it ‘simplistic’. Her rebuttal is supported by evidence from within the PR scholarship. While there are nuanced differences in what different authors perceive to be propaganda, there also are several intersection points among their definitions. Propaganda is often described as a mass-oriented (Gass and Seiter 2013; Marlin 2013; Soules 2015; Sproule 1994) institutional attempt (Gass and Seiter 2013; Jowett and O’Donnell 2014; Marlin 2013) of communication that seeks to manipulate the audience (Jowett and O’Donnell 2014; Marlin 2013; Messina 2007) into performing actions and taking decisions that accelerate the interests of the propagandist (Gass and Seiter 2013; Jowett and O’Donnell 2014; Messina 2007; Soules 2015), but the propagandist’s intention to gain profit is often concealed (Jowett and O’Donnell 2014; Sproule 1994).

Furthermore, Marlin (2013:12) precisely states that to ‘circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment’ is what manipulation entails.

Many critics (eg: Messina 2007; Porter 2010 etc) proclaim that persuasion is not adequately understood and acknowledged within PR studies. Concepts like negotiation and adaptation are more acceptable and hence, preferred by PR practitioners. However, these activities are encompassed in the process of persuasion (Fawkes 2007). Persuasion also often gets meshed with propaganda and ‘its pejorative implications’ (Fawkes 2007; Messina 2007: 30).

Soules (2015: 3) defines persuasion as a form of communication that ‘seeks to change attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours, with mutual needs being met.’ However, to better understand persuasion in the context of PR, it would be useful to look at what persuasion is not.

Persuasion is distinct from and ‘mutually satisfying than propaganda’ as it allows space for the recipient to relate or contrast the incoming message with ‘his or her existing repertoire of information’ (Jowett and O’Donnell 2014: 38). As noted above, Soules (2015) also focuses on the transactional nature of persuasion where the needs of both parties are satisfied, while Russell and Lamme (2016) emphasise the degree of greater choice available to the recipient. Messina (2007) reinforces that suppressing or circumventing the audience’s informed judgment distinguishes between propaganda and persuasion.

Looking at the role of PR in contemporary modern society, Ramsey (2015: 73) raises the question that if ‘effective use of PR is a pragmatic accommodation (maybe even a necessity?)’ in today’s time. Along similar lines, Edwards (2018) also contemplates the subversive potential of PR, while Rees (2020) delineates that PR was and can be used as a tool for social activism.

Bakit et al (2019: 321) state that ‘one-way strategic attempts [of persuasion] are unavoidable’ in mass democracies. At the same time, Pratkanis and Aronson (2001: 7) point out that ‘for better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda’. As a consequence, scholars like Messina (2007), Porter (2010), Gass and Seiter (2013) among others showcase that persuasion can be done ethically.

For Marlin, ethics is a:

...systematic study aimed at discerning which rules and forms of thought and behaviour will contribute to a better existence and which will not (Marlin 2013: 139).

Persuasion as a form of communication is not moral or immoral (Gass and Seiter 2013; Messina 2007). Rather, the morality of a persuasive act is primarily obtained from ‘the ends a persuader seeks’ (Gass and Seiter 2013: 36). For persuasion to be ethical and consensual, it needs to be free of ‘deception, incentivization, coercion, and deceptive coercion’, even if the flow of information is one-way (Bakir et al 2019: 321). Moreover, it is also significant that the audience is respectfully perceived as an end in themselves and adequate information is provided to them in order to form ‘voluntary, informed, rational, and reflective decisions’ (Messina 2007: 33).

Messina (2007) adopts the first four principles from Baker and Martinson’s (2001) TARES test as the standard to measure the ethicality of persuasion. Furthermore, he suggests the use of the rule utilitarianism approach to assess these principles, which are truthfulness, authenticity, respect, and equity. Critiquing Immanuel Kant’s utilitarianism and his notion of the categorical imperative for its absolutism, Messina (2007: 40) explains how rule utilitarianism ‘requires adherence’ to basic rules of morality but also accommodates space for ‘justifiable exceptions at extremes where harm overrides the strict application of the rule’.

To illustrate the theoretical arguments regarding the public/political sphere, persuasion, and propaganda that the essay has offered, now it would go on to discuss two real-life examples of sportspersons publically reaching out to their vast audiences to influence their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. L’ Etang (2006: 390) notes that ‘Sports PR goes way beyond sport and is intrinsically political’ and thus, utterances of players can be of cultural and political significance. The first case study showcases an example of ethical persuasion, while the second displays a case of propaganda.

A word of caution before progressing would be that the context in which persuasion occurs ‘is crucial be because it is the context that determines the nature of the communication process’ (Gass and Seiter 2013: 58) and that ‘each case is idiosyncratic’. Hence, the morality involved in it can have specific context-based exceptions.

Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, since the summer of 2020, has been campaigning to end child food poverty in the UK. Aptly applying PR practices like lobbying, advocacy, and pressuring while, at the same time, disseminating information to the masses via social media and legacy media to persuade them to back his cause, he was able to successfully influence part of the UK government’s policy (Norden, 2021).

For example, his campaign forced the UK government to retract two significant policy decisions related to extending free meals to struggling families. The first was to extend free school meals to help such families over the summer of 2020, after initially deciding to not do so. The second U-turn came later in the year when the motion to keep on extending free school meals was denied by the ruling party in the parliament. However, soon after, because of public pressure, the government decided to change its decision (Norden, 2021).

What Rashford indulged in would be considered pure persuasion by Gass and Seiter (2013) because it was intentional, explicit, took place through the use of language, and involved more than two people. However, since persuasion is central to human communication and he did not employ any non-consensual or ‘ethically suspect methods of influence’ (Gass and Seiter 2013: 35), it would be wrongful to label his actions in the public sphere as propaganda.

Moreover, if put through the four guiding principles of ethical persuasion provided by Messina (2007), his campaign would not be exposed as unethical.

  1. Truthfulness: Throughout his campaign, he provided evidence-backed data, open-source or government-commissioned reports, and also partnered with thinktanks to complement his emotional appeals (Butler 2021; Norden 2021; Rashford 2020)

  2. Authenticity: Few examples indicating the honesty of his work are: he developed a task force; collaborated with leading supermarket chains in the country; asked for long-term solutions; and is starting newer related initiatives besides himself donating £20m in conjunction with FareShare (Cunningham 2020; Norden 2021). These certainly add weight to his cause.

  3. Respect: Again, the constant and evidence-driven data offered by Rashford and his team reflects that his campaign displayed respect for reason towards his audience and allowed them space to make informed and voluntary choices (Butler 2021; Norden 2021; Rashford 2020).

  4. Equity: Although his campaign involved mass persuasion, there is evidence that he acknowledged feedback from the public via social media or by physically meeting up with families (Adams 2021).

However, despite this example, ethical persuasion on a mass scale for social activism is still not the norm. As Moloney (2006) shows, the public/political sphere remains, what Habermas would call, refeudalized. Edwards (2018: 108) too concedes that arguments favouring PR are only ‘partially successful’ and in practice, PR ‘is not always designed to open up debate’.

The second case study is concerning the display of propaganda in the ongoing farmers’ protest in India, which began in November 2020. The farmers have been protesting against three new laws introduced by the Union Government of India – which is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – that essentially seek to privatise the farming market in the country (Agarwal 2020).

Responding to tweets highlighting the situation in India by Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and some other international personalities, an assemble of Indian sportspersons (alongside film stars) such as Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Manika Batra tweeted similar-sounding, similar-worded messages while using the same hashtags – #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. Interestingly, the badminton player, Saina Nehwal and film actor, Akshay Kumar – both of whom have a favourable relationship with the BJP – tweeted the exact same response. All of them were asking the ‘external forces’ to not interfere in the so-called internal matter of the nation (The Wire 2021).

According to the indicators of propaganda discussed in this essay, these tweets contain several of them. They reflect a mass-oriented (Marlin 2013; Soules 2015) systematic attempt (Jowett and O’Donnell 2014; Gass and Seiter 2013) to dismiss dissent. Meeting the mutual needs of the persuader and persuadee is another important factor of ethical persuasion (Soules 2015), however, in this case, even after almost a year of protesting and eleven rounds of deliberations between the farmers and the government, the demands of the farmers have not truly been taken into account (Kumar 2021). Thus, such facts raise questions about the actual motive behind those tweets. Moreover, the use of such orchestrated, manufactured messaging also exhibits a disregard for the reasoning abilities of the audience, and as noted above, respect for reason is one of the markers of ethical persuasion (Messina 2007).

From the definitions, arguments, and case studies related to the public/political sphere, persuasion, and propaganda discussed and debated in this essay, several interferences can be obtained. Firstly, because sport is grounded in society, culture, and politics, public statements and actions of sportspersons carry weight and significance (L’Etang 2006). However, determining whether these public utterances and demonstrations will fall under the category of persuasion or propaganda is a subjective task. Asserting the ethicality of such deeds is only possible after analysing the context and situation in which they were spoken or performed (Gass and Seiter 2013). Nonetheless, to do so accurately, it is imperative that one understands what is meant by these terms and what are the various criteria that confirm the morality of public assertions and actions.

Furthermore, the Rashford case study demonstrated the subversive potential of ethically-yet-effectively-performed PR. Notwithstanding, such examples are not the norm. Rather, a reality of our contemporary modern society is that the intersection of legacy and digital media, the State, and the ruling/business elites have worked together to refeudalize the political sphere in order to manipulate the masses for personal gain (Edwards 2018; Habermas 1989; Moloney 2006). The farmers’ protest case study highlights shades of how the above-mentioned intersection works.


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