Persuasion vs Coercion: An Ethical Question

Most public relations (PR) campaigns are seeking to change attitudes and behaviours of audiences, and can be said to be persuasive communication management (Wilcox et al. 2013). Messina (2007, p.30) states that ‘One cannot inform without the message receiver at least implicitly being persuaded that the topic is worthy of attention’. Messina (2007) further points out that the part played by persuasion strengthens where the intent is to influence attitudes or behaviour.

The definition of coerce (Oxford Dictionaries 2015) is to ‘persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats’ or to ‘obtain (something) from someone by using force or threats’.  Messina (2007) suggests that coercion would never be considered ethical in public relations.

Simply comparing these concepts highlights immediate differences, summarised in image 1. Persuasion allows an audience to make voluntary, informed conclusions through communication of a view. Whereas coercion is unethical; it involves the use of manipulation, force or threats in an attempt to accomplish a desired result.

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Image 1(Source: Dietrich 2012)

The line for PR professionals should be drawn at the point where ethical persuasion is used in communications in an effort to influence others, and no questionable, unethical or potentially illegal tactics are used in an attempt to achieve organisational goals. An audience should feel empowered to make educated decisions and form opinions about the subject, without intimidation or threats being used.

An example of the ethical use of persuasion in PR is that specific facts relating to the subject matter may be intentionally omitted, however any information that is communicated must be based on truth and/or facts and must not be deliberately misleading, untrue, or forceful or threatening in nature.


Dietrich, G 2012, Employer Ensures Employees Aren’t Happy by Leading with Fear, viewed 26 April 2015,

Messina, A 2007, ‘Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach’, Journal of Communication Management, vol.11, no.1, pp. 29-52, (online Discover It @ CQUniversity Library).

Oxford Dictionaries 2015, Coerce, viewed 4 May 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.