Bill Nichols

26 January 2015

Bill Nichols

Justifiable Ambiguity: Shades of Grey in Strategic-Communications (January 2015)

Working in strategic-communications, is it ever acceptable to lie? (writes Dr Bill Nichols).

If strategic-communications is confronted by say terrorism, financial implosion or executive misdemeanour? When unvarnished truth meets e.g. risk of public panic, loss of jobs or investment damage?

Note this is a double challenge: acquiescence in falsehood and strategic purpose.  The conflict lies at the heart of PR’s classic dilemma.  Is the PR executive ‘truth-guardian’ or ‘client-advocate’.   The ‘lie-test’ demands a strict ‘no’. But it also prompts a compelling – and exceptional – case to deploy ‘justifiable ambiguity’.

In this zone of conflict ‘should’ tussles with ‘is’.  Resolution, in my view, marks a mature profession.

Here’s why and how.

 ‘The Truth, The Whole Truth…’

The ethics ‘lie-test’ is commonplace in my University PR classes. At first pass, it’s black-and-white. Most day-to-day PR emphasises clarity.  It serves and engages the information-recipient as ‘customer’.  It does not require the ‘dark arts’.  I.e. the “stunts, spin, lies and assorted PR ‘b******t” – dismissed with alacrity by most students.  Frequently, indeed, PR practice is undermined by them.

But ‘shades of grey’? Pause for thought

Duty and Justifiable Ambiguity

‘Should’ inclined textbooks and codes generally deny this issue.  PR’s excellence tradition exhorts us to embed ethics in planning and to become guardians.  Ultimately promoting ethics “will result in your helping the organisation to improve not only its image but its reality…. the real duty of a strategic communications manager (*1)” .   This approach leads, for example, to active and thoughtful corporate social responsibility (per my earlier blog).

But, as a thoughtful new case-based study evidences, this ‘guardian’ duty ultimately must defer to the real game-shifter.  It’s the ‘S’ word.  Strategic – properly understood – spotlights organisational purpose, intent and, consequently, selection.

Where ends and means conflict, ‘strategic’ shows us the communicator’s first duty to his organisation. It is – to paraphrase St AugustineSt. Augustine’s famous concept of the just war – to seek ‘order, the right disposition of things according to their proper end’.  War is acceptable if it serves peace.  We should also observe J S Mill’s framing of liberty: ensuring that our exercise of liberty does not make ‘a nuisance to other people’.

So, in making the best possible presentation, corporate communicator-advocates must not lie. But conversely they are neither judge nor jury.  They must deal in shades of grey which embrace both ‘ambiguity and deception’ (*2).

The Practice of Ambiguity

The practice of justifiable ambiguity, suggests the new study, comes in three flavours: syntactical,  the crafted positioning of phrase or clause; lexical, the precise practice of semantics; and pragmatic, the visual production of mitigating context and indicative image.

More on strategic-communications practice and ambiguity in a future blog. Your examples, ideas and feedback are hugely welcome here.


*1 Powell, M (2011), Ethics and the Public Relations Process in Moss D., and DeSanto, B (eds) Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective. London UK: Sage.

*2 Dulek, R.E., and Campbell, K.S. (2015). On the Dark Side of Strategic Communication, International Journal of Business Communication, 52 122:142

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