Professor of Corporate Communication
JSBE, University of Jyäskylä, Finland
In his book The Post-Truth Era. Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (2004), Ralph Keyes depicts our society as one interviewed by deception and ambiguity. Already in his opening sentence, he notes how humans are intrinsically using vagueness and deceiving as a way to cope.
“During years of studying deceptive behaver, psychologist Robert Feldman has made some intriguing discoveries. The older children get, the more deft they grow at lying. Popular teenagers are better liars than unpopular ones. We’re more likely to lie when our self-esteem is threatened.” (Keyes, 2004, p. 3)
I came to think about this first line when reflecting on the current image and reputation of public relations and communication professionals among the general public. Could this offer some points of reflections for why the profession is recursively caught to behave in ambiguous, and sometimes deceptive manners?
In a post-truth era, the question of deception and ambiguity has gained traction in popular media. A recent study of mine conducted together with Dean Kruckeberg from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, USA and presented at the 2nd International and Interdisciplinary Conference on the Dark Side of Communication, Aalborg, Denmark, on public relations and deception shows how the profession of public relations is historically perceived to be mostly a manipulative, deceptive organizational practice, rather than a transparent communication practice bridging with publics and their concerns. Furthermore, early studies on deception and public relations have scant and often vague discussions on what the profession is, what it does, and stands for, thus these studies are very often unclear when attributing deception to the profession.
To add to this, real-life situations and contemporary cases, fake and alternative news, spin on behalf of politicians, corporate greenwashing etc., have raised public attention and also critique towards public relations and other related communication professions, their function in organizations, and their practices; the latter are often described as highly questionable.
Why cannot a profession that should take care of the reputation and image of an organization, individual, client or organized entity take care of own professional image and reputation? Why is public perception of how communication professionals operate often poor?
For some, this question is primarily an issue of lack of ethical conduct and professional bodies sanctioning bad practices. I would like, however, to move over the “bad apple” cases and instead focus on the general issue of ambiguity shrouding our profession and impacting general public perception.
The concept of ambiguity has been historically studied by organizational communication scholars in light of certain internal communication practices in organizations and as contrasting standpoint to the mainstream idea of superiority of consistency and clarity in organizational communications (cf. Eisenberg, 1984; Johansen, 2018). Yet, a lot of those insights are highly applicable to, and offer theoretically grounded justifications to the issue of ambiguity among public relations and related communication professionals. In this respect, I would like to raise the attention to the fact that communication professionals have and are often using ambiguity either as strategic choice or professional kismet in defining their competences, functions and above all practices. This, I would argue, is a way to cope with societal complexity, and organizational and stakeholder expectations. But what is ambiguity?
It is often defined as indirectness, vagueness, unclarity (as in lack of transparency), and disqualification (Eisenberg, 1984). It resides in the source’s intention, receiver’s interpretation and message itself. In that, it is a “relational variable which arises through a combination of source, message and receiver factors” (ibid, p. 7). Furthermore, ambiguity is contextual and constructed.
Ambiguity can be the results of unintentional actions, but it can also be a strategic choice. As a strategic choice ambiguity should not be considered purely deviational but a contribution to normal interactions in and outside organizations. Eisenberg in his seminal work Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication (1984) identifies four major strengths in using ambiguity in organizational communication contexts. Ambiguity can a) promote a unified diversity, b) preserve privilege positions, c) foster deniability and d) facilitate organizational changes.
Ambiguity is used to strategically foster agreement on abstractions without limiting specific interpretations. Hence it can reduce conflict among parties and thus serve to hold strained relations because it increases and allows multiple interpretations. As a result, ambiguity can increase group agreement, since it allows to represent the ideas and opinions of otherwise divergent individuals in a unified manner.
Furthermore, ambiguity can foster creativity and innovation, as it nurture multiple viewpoints in organizations. Yet, ambiguity expands organizational and professional freedom to alter operations, practices, goals, without looking unwise or inconsistent. Thus, it offers deniability by increasing a person’s alternatives. At the same time, ambiguity helps in maintaining personal credibility among others. Research shows that people cope with ambiguous information by relying on own existing views, aligning the new information with pre-existing believes (Eisenberg, 1984). Thus, credible speakers can strategically use ambiguity to maintain positive perceptions.
Translating these ideas to the question of why ambiguity in communication professionals’ practices and/or behaviors, we could come with a number of possible interpretations.
For example, the fact that there is no clear agreement on what public relations is, and how similar and different it is from other organizational communication functions and the fact that there has not been substantial professional interest in clarifying the identity is often a strategic ambiguity choice. Professionals tend not to stick to a specific label, as a professional brand. They frequently adapt, change and present themselves under different terms depending on whom they are interacting to or for whom they are working. Hence, sometimes they are public relations managers, or strategic communication or corporate communication managers, other times public affairs or public information/communication officer, etc. Similarly, for some the profession’s “core” is about image/reputation management, for others, relationship building, but also event and promotion management, or media outreach, public information, and so on.
Second, strategic ambiguity seems to explain some of the professionals’ behaviors in the boardroom. In this respect, it functions as a coping strategy. To be accepted and be considered part of the dominant coalition, professionals tend to adopt a managerial logic which may imply deniability of a communication logic – at least for the time they are interacting with other managers, and so a new language, a managerial vocabulary is embraced. This allow them to fuse with other, non-communication managers.
Third, and perhaps the most visible behavior, ambiguity is used to preserve and even reinforce stakeholders’ perceptions. There are plenty of situations when ambiguous communication is used by professionals to convince stakeholders about something. Ambiguity allows to address individual stakeholders and their different levels of knowledge, attitudes and values in different manners. Instead of offering and appearing to have twenty different positions on something, by speaking metaphorically, using a language that allows professionals to be understood differently by different stakeholders, professionals do not appear to contradict themselves. They maintain credibility.
In short ambiguity seems to be a valuable strategic choice among communication professionals to adjust to organizational, societal and professional challenges. The fact that ambiguity allows malleability, flexibility and, to some extent, deniability, offers great opportunities to address variations of issues and situations. Yet, it can turn into a professional nightmare; it can undermine the professional legitimacy when ambiguity leads to an imprecise and unclear definition of what the profession is and stand for.
But maybe ambiguity can be seen as a professional kismet, expanding our understanding of what this profession is all about. As Frank Herbert nicely put it “The truth always carries the ambiguity of words used to express it”.
Eisenberg, E. M. (1984). Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227–242
Herbert, F. (2019). God Emperor of Dune Quotes. New York, Ace Books
Johansen, W. (2018). Strategic Ambiguity. In R. Heath & W. Johansen (Eds.). International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication. Wiley & Son
Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era. Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York, St Martins Press