Coping with crisis ethically – limited dialogue, steered participation and other power uses as part of an ethical activists’ practice?

TitleCoping with crisis ethically – limited dialogue, steered participation and other power uses as part of an ethical activists’ practice?
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Danelzik, M.
Affiliation (1st Author)Institute for Media Studies, University of Tubingen
Section or WGCrisis Communication Working Group
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodeCRIW4a
Slot Code (Keyword)CRIW4a
Time of Session16:00-17:30
Session TitlePanel: Causing Crises and Navigating Political Struggle (s): Activists’ dilemmas between symmetry and asymmetry
Submission ID6935

The excellence theory of PR sees establishing power-free dialogue and symmetrical relationships as the ethical imperative of strategic communication (Bowen, 2007, p. 277). Critical scholars find strategic communication problematic precisely because it cannot live up to the ethical standards the excellence theory proposes (Brown, 2010, p. 284). However, critical scholars have left one important question unaddressed: If a critical standpoint wants to avoid deeming all strategic communication unethical categorically, it has to provide appropriate ethical guidelines for strategic communication as a necessarily power-laden practice. The presentation will explore this issue by engaging with activism against female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is one of the most important and rampant ‘harmful traditional practices’. Those practices are defined by the fact that practitioners perceive them to be an essential part of their cultural identity as well as an important social institution. The violent history of colonial as well as post-colonial ‘civilizing missions’ feed resistance against campaigns that are seen to aim at the cultural core of target groups by ‘the West’, ‘alienated elites’ or an estranged nation state. Activists involved in ending female genital mutilation are therefore often seen as agents of a Western modernity destroying valued traditions and culture. Their actions are understood to deepen an already existing socio-cultural crisis that continues to disarray the social order. Activists and parts of their target groups regularly engage in fundamental conflicts, where everything seems to be on the line (from the cultural fabric of the target groups to the safety of the activists). In order to cope with the danger to be perceived as a force of crisis, activists design culturally sensitive and participatory campaigns, which academically and politically are lauded as the ideal solution for the challenge. They supposedly create opportunities for target groups to vent about their aggravations and to involve them in the campaign, to make them part of the effort to end the practice on terms the target group can agree on. However, activists struggle to convince their target groups that abandonment of the practice is desirable and even culturally sensitive campaigns regularly evoke resistance in their target groups. They respond to these fundamental strategic challenges by – among other things – instrumentalizing dialogue by portraying their agenda as results of dialogue and controlling participation to foster their goals, thereby differing significantly from the ideal of culturally sensitive campaigns. At the same time however, it is difficult to see how activists could tackle a practice, which is so thoroughly stabilized through power, without making use of power themselves. In the paternalistic constellation of the campaigns, procedural ideals and the desired outcome conflict on numerous occasions. Making use of ethnographic data on four Tanzanian campaigns, the presentation will sketch out key questions of an applied ethics analysis of the campaigns and thereby illuminate the general debate on power and ethics of crisis communication. Bowen, S. A. (2007). The Extent of Ethics. In E. L. Toth (Ed.), The future of excellence in public relations and communication management. Challenges for the next generation (pp. 275–297). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum. Brown, R. E. (2010). Symmetry and Its Critics: Antecedents, Prospects, and Implications for Symmetry in a Postsymmetry Era. In R. L. Heath (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of public relations (2nd ed., pp. 227–292). Los Angeles: Sage.

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