Strategic communication is the practice of communicating with a big agenda, or a master plan of sorts. It infuses the notion of pushing messages to the public as well as delivering them to the target audience. It has been a fairly recent emergence in the field of communication, as strategic communication has been birthed due to the rise of social media, where the relationship between the public and the information has been drawn closer than ever. It differs from public relations (PR) in the sense that, strategic communication is the bigger, broader set in the field of communication of which PR is a subset. To communicate strategically, a practitioner has to draw a fine line between achieving the goals, and achieving the goals unethically.
The issue between ethics and strategic communication has been a hot topic that has been up for debate among scholars in the field, especially when there are impacts over the public or audience involved. The said issue can be seen through the movie ‘Thank You for Smoking’, released in 2005. This movie was directed by Jason Reitman and produced by David O’ Sacks, starring Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, William H. Macy and Cameron Bright. ‘Thank You for Smoking’ is a movie that revolves around the work life of Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the industry of tobacco. Throughout the movie, Nick’s profession has come under thorough scrutiny by the public who are against smoking. This is because the industry that Nick is working for advocates smoking for the sake of tobacco-producing business. Nick’s job scope encompasses the advocacy towards the practice of smoking among the American consumers. His task as a lobbyist falls under what Lock, Seele and Heath (2016) said as ‘classical’ lobbying, where he drives the information necessary for having influence over the public’s mind. This responsibility of Nick has not been accepted well by the public, as portrayed in the beginning of the movie where Nick was one of the panellists in the Joan Lunden Show on TV. The crowd hurls boos and profanities unto him even before he speaks. He also underwent a slight complication when he presented the scopes of his profession to his son, Joey, and his classmates, where he had to twist and spin some spectra from the children.
The course of the movie was driven by Nick’s motivation towards his job, his practices while executing his responsibility, as well as his own self-reflection when it comes to setting an example for his son. Throughout his career, he held onto the ‘Yuppie Nuremberg Defense’, as in putting the blame for him to commit unethical conducts to mortgage-paying. This has become a norm among lobbyists, particularly through the ‘Merchants of Death’ trio, in which lobbyists normally have a standard set of norms (Berg, 2012), in this case, the aforementioned ‘defense’. Nick also had to encounter Heather Holloway, a journalist who manipulated him into divulging the ugly side of the industry he was investing his time and energy in. The movie ended with him moving on from the tobacco industry and setting up his own strategic communication specialist company. As aforementioned, there are several ethical issues that has been put into question through Nick and Heather’s practices while they were executing their respective responsibilities. The said issues can be categorized, analysed and criticized by the following aspects: public manipulation; bribery; logical fallacies; and seduction.
This is the most glaring ethical issue that has been committed, in this case, by Nick Naylor himself. Throughout the course of the movie, Nick utilizes his talent in talking and arguing to manipulate the public’s views, reception, and attitude towards smoking. Of course, although their attitude towards the notion of smoking has been initially negative, through his eloquence, Nick managed to manipulate them i. e. sway their attention to another issue, or convince them that it is okay to smoke via citing the concept of personal choice.
Nick’s unethical conducts in terms of public manipulation will be further discussed throughout this section. Firstly, in the ‘Joan Lunden Show’ scene, Nick intercepted Ron Goode’s (Senator’s spokesperson) talking turn by immediately bagging everyone’s attention towards what he wants to convey. He mentioned something along the lines of calling out to the uncalled blame being put unto the tobacco industry, then he shifted the focus to the government (in the movie, Ron Goode was the representative of the government), in which he claimed that “they want the Robin Willigers to die”, as to quote Nick’s line in the movie. The shift in blaming clearly affected the crowd as their facial expressions softened to agreeing nods and admission towards the issue being focused upon. As a result, Ron Goode did not get his turn as he anticipated; instead, the show immediately went on a break, cutting the opportunity for him to refute the blame. This is an obvious unethical conduct by the lobbyist, in which he did not address the truth on the industry he is serving, but simply shifted the public’s focus onto something else entirely. This goes against the ethical conduct of transparency. Another example of public manipulation committed by Nick was that he jumped in with the idea to implement smoking into movies and shows; as in setting exemplars in the forms of famous figures to tell the public that smoking is a norm and not a bad thing to happen in humanity.
The cinematic idea of having Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones having a sexual intercourse in space and smoking while doing so, as well as naming a brand new cigarette after the space station/area, is a positive public portrayal of the image of the act of smoking. The meeting between Nick and Jeff Megall, the Hollywood super-agent, further solidifies the unethical conduct by Nick as the lobbyist or Public Relations representative of the tobacco industry in which he was attempting to instil in public knowledge that smoking is a good conduct, while in truth, it is not. The third form of public manipulation committed by Nick Naylor is the scene whereby he took advantage of his life-or-death situation in order to further convince the public that smoking, or in this case, nicotine saved his life. Prior to this scene, Nick was kidnapped by someone from the public and he was stamped with a lot of nicotine patches, an act that would have killed him due to the sudden overdose of nicotine in his system. It was proven by the doctor himself that it was a miracle that Nick survived the incident. Later, Nick called upon the journalists and advocated that smoking saved his life. This is clearly a twist and situational manipulation and it worked well to Nick’s, and the industry’s, cause. It is unethical and immoral because people around him, e. g. Joey, his ex-wife, BR etc. were very concerned about his well-being. He simply acted out of a workaholic-state of mind, without paying attention to his surroundings and his situation. The last example of public manipulation in this movie was during the public hearing, or convention, regarding whether to include the ‘Poison’ label on cigarette boxes or not. Nick appeared to testify, and he convinced the public by twisting and manipulating the concept of humanism. Humanism is a school of thought that condones the betterment of human life. In the sense of what is being conveyed through the movie, the debate during the convention was whether Nick would allow Joey to smoke on his 18th birthday. At this, Nick spun his words into persuading himself, and the public, that it is the children’s choice if they want to smoke. The notions of ‘freedom to choose’ and ‘personal rights’ have been twisted in this scene and it appealed to the American public at that time because historically, that was the foundation of America’s development. To simplify, Nick’s conduct of manipulating the public into believing that smoking is acceptable and not harmful is an unethical execution of his job as a lobbyist and spokesperson of the public. This is a huge breach of code of conduct of the public relations ethics, since he had zero transparency and honesty while doing so. Through this aspect, it can also be seen how lobbyists use media in order to manipulate the public. This is supported by Miller, Brownbill, Dono and Ettridge (2018) in which industries use media coverage to have impact on audience.
Another unethical conduct performed by Nick Naylor as the lobbyist of the tobacco industry is that he used bribery to push forward his and the industry’s cause. The clearest example of bribery in this movie is the part where Nick was instructed by the Captain to deliver a briefcase containing money to Lorne Lutch, a former celebrity, dubbed the Marlboro-Man, in an attempt to silence him on the issues over smoking. Lutch was diagnosed with a series of diseases related to his formerly avid habit of smoking, making him an advocate of the anti-smoking campaign. Since he was a public, influential figure, the Captain felt that it would be in their best interest to keep him silent. However, the focus of the unethical conduct is not on the Captain, but it is the method Nick used against Lutch: lying. It did seem hard to convince a dying man on keeping shut about the major cause of his predicament, but Nick had to find a way to make him take the money, which in turn, would result in him being quiet altogether. Nick unethically manipulated, and lied to Lutch about the real deal he was charged to convince the latter to do. Nick twisted the situation by eliciting an imaginary event and issued an ultimatum, which could only result in Lutch taking the money nonetheless. With the little play on future-sight, Nick achieved success in persuading him to take the money and halt his movement against smoking. This is an unethical conduct because it involves total dishonesty onto the audience, in this case, Lorne Lutch. Honesty is a key ethical code in the field of Public Relations and Nick breached that code, thanks to the evil of bribery, in order to accomplish his task.
In the movie, it was not only Nick who committed bribery. The Academy of Tobacco was also portrayed as bribing lawyers so that their unethical and unlawful conducts escape legal and public attention. Therefore, it can be said that the act of bribery, although minor, played a huge impact to the public, as well as leading the characters to commit other breach in ethics such as being dishonest and being manipulative.
Nick Naylor’s forte is arguing and talking, as he himself claimed in the movie. However, to view the unethical conducts by him in the movie, it is also important to see how his arguments unfold via logical fallacies. Logical fallacies can be defined as errors in arguments that have the potential to win the arguer undeserved credit. Throughout the movie, Nick committed a lot of logical fallacies which resulted in him arguing, and conveying unethically the messages he attempted to convey.
The first fallacy he committed was the ‘Appeal to Emotion’ fallacy. This logical fallacy appeals to the opponents’ emotion, compassion and pity. Basically, to commit this fallacy is to manipulate the audience’s train of thoughts via emotion. This is evident in the scene where Nick attended the show-and-tell for students’ father event at Joey’s school. He was bombarded with questions against smoking by the children, but he then swayed their concerns by asking the questions on whether they would choose chocolate even if their parents say chocolates are bad. He appealed to their emotion by citing something that is dear to children’s heart – chocolate. He also committed the same fallacy, with the same argument, when he was having dinner with Joey, while teaching him about the art of arguing.
Next, he committed the ‘Red Herring’ fallacy. This fallacy is committed by raising irrelevant answers or issues, in an attempt to divert away from the issue at hand. Nick committed this fallacy multiple times in the movie, but the most glaring example would be from the scene where Nick was testifying in Senator Finisterre’s convention on the application of the label ‘Poison’ and the image of skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs in America. When being asked about the relevance of putting such labels, Nick deflected the question by saying that if cigarette is to be labelled as dangerous because of the death tolls, then so should Boeing planes and Ford cars, as well as hitting a personal note on the senator by saying that Vermont cheddar cheese is one of the main causes of cholesterol, thus being the main cause of deaths in America. This is an obvious commission of the ‘Red Herring’ fallacy which in turn, clouded his transparency towards the issue as well as manipulating the public to shift their focus to other problems.
These are the two major impactful logical fallacies that occurred throughout the course of the movie. They were impactful because they, in some sense, impacted the way Nick executed his tasks as the industry’s lobbyist, leading him to commit unethical Public Relations conducts. Thus, it is safe to say that unethical conducts by Nick in the movie come side-by-side with the logical fallacies he committed along the way.
In the movie ‘Thank You for Smoking’, Nick Naylor is not the only character to breach the code of ethics in strategic communication. Heather Holloway is a journalist looking to get a scoop on the life of Nick, the tobacco lobbyist, and what his responsibilities are as the said official. She went to extreme lengths in order to obtain the necessary, impactful information about Nick and his job. In the end, her extreme lengths became her downfall as a journalist, tarnishing her reputation and credibility.
The means that Heather used in the movie was seduction. She seduced Nick into having a sexual relationship with her, while digging, bits by bits, for information. This is an unethical conduct by a journalism practitioner, due to the fact that the act she did was an extremely immoral and uncalled conduct. It tarnishes the reputation of the field of journalism, as well as smears her reputation that she has built upon ever since. She was a feared journalist, as quoted by Bobby, Nick’s friend who was also a firearm lobbyist. Bobby and their other lobbyist friend, Polly, warned Nick about Heather’s journalistic voyage and accomplishments. However, Heather managed to trap Nick in her grasp and committed a huge breach in ethics of journalism.
The act of seduction for the sake of getting information for journalism purposes goes against the fundamental principle of journalism ethics, in which the practitioner should have moral commitment in conveying information (Ceferin and Poler, 2017). Heather committed an immoral method to gain information, which saw her going against the very basic principle of her field. This involves personal affairs as well as trust, and it also breaches the code of professionalism in any field that exists in this world. To sum up, what Heather did in order to gain scoop over Nick is an unacceptable breach of ethical conduct and that, her tarnished reputation is a deserved consequence.
To conclude, the lobbyist and journalist in this movie totally went to various, unethical methods in order to accomplish their goals. Ranging from Nick and Heather, to the other practitioners of principles such as Senator Finisterre and the tobacco conglomerate, various breaches in code of ethics have been committed without being caught and that is a worrying element in the past, current and future field of strategic communication. Therefore, more education should be given in terms of ethics, as well as more training should be provided to future communication strategists in order to avoid such breaches from becoming a norm in the field.