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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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This study can be useful to scholars in the fields of public relations and media ethics, communication, and terrorism because it illuminates how al Qa'ida constructed public relations campaigns that mixed legitimate and suspect appeals to moral and ethical authority. The analysis of the al Qa'ida public relations campaigns revealed that these campaigns have addressed different American stakeholders and used ethically based appeals, but failed to treat their publics as rational beings. These findings can be used to develop standards for analyzing the ethical appeals in extremist public relations messages, or what Boyd and VanSlette (2009) have called outlaw discourse.

Al Qa'ida Public Relations Campaigns Terrorism scholars and media analysts are unanimous in their judgment that al Qa'ida runs powerful and successful public relations campaigns that gain supporters, draw donations, and inspire terrorist acts (Gjelton, 2008). Hoffman (2006) and Richardson (2006) pointed to the sophistication and flexibility that al Qa'ida media campaigns employ to reach publics, while persistently underscoring the rationale for jihad and justifications of violence. Al Qa'ida disseminates its public relations messages through a variety of media outlets including cable television, radio, postings on Internet sites, digital video broadcasts on Web sites, and electronic book publishing (Scheuer, 2006; Sinan & Schemm, 2008). Because the United States and European governments have often failed at disrupting or countering al Qa'ida media campaigns (Lipton & Lichtblau, 2004), Western policy makers increasingly seek to understand the power of al Qa'ida to influence its target publics and 20 to develop counter public media campaigns that challenge this organization's extremist messages (Pincus, 2008).

Publics in al Qa'ida Messages Public relations campaigns such as al Qa'ida's must be directed toward publics, defined as people who are important to any organization because "it has purposely or even inadvertently galvanized them" (Lattimore, Basking, Heiman, & Toth, 2007, p. 7). This study examined public relations messages directed toward American publics. Increasingly, the American stakeholders targeted by al Qa'ida are approached via Internet venues (Esposito, 2010). Moss and Mekhennet (2007) and Lipton and Lichtblau (2004) reported that at least one hundred English language sites distributed translated Arabic terrorist messages to American and European Muslims.

RQ1: What public relations goals can we infer that al Qa'ida has tried to achieve in its ethical messages to various American publics?

Ethics in Public Relations Campaigns The themes in Al Qa'ida public relations campaigns are developed through arguments and appeals based upon religious and ethical standards. Because the al Qa'ida public relations messages cross cultural and national boundaries, the rules of conduct, values, and character traits vary within the publics addressed and cultural relativism may seem the only valid analytic approach. However, Masud (2002) pointed out that Islamic societies have historically blended cultures, much as Western democracies have done, and that all pluralistic societies must develop widely agreed upon ethical standards (p. 135). Consequently, public relations scholars must investigate what standards apply in these cross-cultural campaigns to determine if they are, in fact, ethical and whether they gain persuasive power from these ethical appeals.

Consequently, we need multiple perspectives to provide useful ethical standards in assessing public relations campaigns. Some Western standards are useful in ethical assessments because they require the autonomy of each individual in decision-making, the treatment of all persons with dignity and respect, evaluation of the consequences of actions, and the engagement in dialogue rather than asymmetrical communication (Bowen, 2007b). Often publics can engage in the same moral action, but they apply conflicting moral standards (DeGeorge, 2006, p. 89).

Multiple perspectives allow us to perceived ethical contradictions when analyzing public relations messages.

RQ2: What ethical and moral perspectives has al Qa'ida used to explain the organization's activities and purposes to American publics?

Values-based and Power-based Messages The final perspective that can influence standards in pubic relations campaigns is religious morality. Religious moral appeals in public relations messages can be viewed as either values-based or power-based. Richards (2004) distinguished two modes of address in public relations campaigns that influence ethics: values-based and power-based. Power-based communication is aimed at convincing various publics that the organization has superior strength (Richards, 2004, p. 173). On the other hand, a values-based mode in a campaign tries to convince publics that the organization adheres to certain values or standards. The demonstration of those values may be deceitful, but the assumption is that publics will judge the message based on their reason, not on emotional response (Richards, 2004, p. 173).

In the context of the al Qa'ida campaign, some power-based appeals can be drawn from Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic religions. The moral traditions within this triad of Western and Middle Eastern religions are based on theology and divine revelation. Within monotheistic religions, morality ultimately rests on God (Aslan, 2005, p. 100). According to the Koran, these 21 three religions share a single divine scripture. DeGeorge (2006) points out that strict theological morality precludes philosophical ethical theory because divine revelation determines which actions are right or wrong (p. 79). This assumption allows extremist groups to claim that their calls to action are buttressed by the authority of God.

As a counter to this foundation for morality in religious revelation, most societies acknowledge that moral principles must have more than theological support in order to gain acceptance by all human beings, not just religious believers. Consequently, many religions, including Islam, offer rational arguments to justify moral imperatives. Aslan (2005, pp. 262) points out that in Islam there can be no compulsion in religion and that pluralism within American democracy was built upon Judeo-Christian revelation, but extended with rational thought. Masud (2002) outlined several traditions of morality within Islam and asserted that Islam is NOT a monolithic moral religion. While one popular tradition called hadith does rely on theological interpretation, other systems such as akhlaq look to practical ethics and reason as moral guides and fiqh deals with legal ethics. Masud concluded that “Muslim societies have in practice accommodated ethical pluralism” (p. 140). The values-based perspective, then, can extend ethical appeals by combining faith with rational judgment.

RQ3: Has al Qa'ida primarily used values-based or power-based ethical appeals in it public relations campaigns directed at Americans?

Method The data in this study included a selection of fourteen translated messages produced by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri between 1998 and 2006. Eight messages were selected for examination because they contained direct address to American publics or substantial sections analyzing American behavior. Another six messages were included, but not systematically examined, because they addressed publics in Europe or Western democracies in general; they were used as points of comparison.

The method focused on analysis as defined by Wolcott (1994)—an approach that guides the inferences we draw from the data (p. 26). Systematic document analysis was used and data were transformed by qualitative descriptive and pattern analysis. Identity and descriptive codes were assigned to allow specific information and meanings to be extracted from the documents.

Miles and Huberman (1994) defined codes as "tags or labels for assigning units of meaning to the descriptive or inferential information compiled during a study" (p. 56). The goal of coding was to isolate overall themes that would assist in answering the three research questions. Identity codes allowed elements of the messages to be classified. Descriptive codes related directly to the three research questions posed by the study.

Findings Al Qa'ida leaders have recognized that they are fighting a media war with their enemies and this perception intensified after 2001. Bin Laden (2001) analyzed media effects in an

interview with one Ummat correspondent on September 28, 2001:

The Western media is unleashing such a baseless propaganda, which make us surprise [sic] but it reflects what is in their hearts and gradually they themselves become captive of this propaganda. They become afraid of it and begin to cause harm to themselves. Terror is the most dreaded weapon in [the] modern age and the Western media is mercilessly using it against its own people. It can add fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States ( 4).

This analysis underscored the importance of reaching Americans through public relations campaigns because of the psychological effects and the negative emotions that intense 22 campaigns can create. Bin Laden's ironic sense that campaigns can turn against their producers provides a baseline for analyzing ethical features of the messages produced by al Qa'ida.

Al Qa'ida public relations campaigns directly address or mention a range of American publics and stakeholders. These include G.W. Bush and his administration (al-Zawahiri, 2004, February 24), other U. S. leaders, including Presidents Clinton and G.H.W. Bush, Sr. (Bin Laden, 2001, October 6), as well as the U. S. military and its allies (al-Zawahiri, 2005, December 7). These publics are generally categorized as enemies within the ethical framework of the campaign. More pertinently, al Qa'ida has addressed the general American public, sometimes in its role as voters. Bin Laden (2001, November 12) acknowledged, "Many in the West are polite and good people," and called upon them to consider the ethicality of their leaders' actions (p.


Goals of al Qa'ida Public Relations Campaigns RQ1 asked what public relations goals al Qa’ida has tried to achieve by reaching out to American publics. Descriptive coding revealed that that al Qa'ida has addressed both active and passive publics (Grunig & Repper, 1992). Active publics include political and military leaders from the United States. The overall goal of these messages is to discredit the moral credibility of Western leaders who al Qa'ida claims have committed atrocities against Muslims, including children and women in Iraq victimized under embargos of food and medicine. Al Zawahiri (2006, September 21) called G. W. Bush "the butcher of Washington" and addressed the president directly: "Bush, you are not only a liar and defeated, but with God's help and might, you are a failed and disappointed person." The tactics of discrediting do not rest on careful moral reasoning--strategies used with other publics--but involve presenting facts as al Qa'ida defines them. In discussing the essential crimes of the U.S. government (i.e., occupation of the Holy Lands, massacres in Iraq, and support for Israel), bin Laden (2001, October 7) wrote, “There is no longer any debate about three well acknowledged and commonly agreed facts that require no further proof. “ The passive public consists of the American people as an undefined group. The general framework for addressing the Americans becomes clear in three messages: an interview conducted by a Muslim journalist with bin Laden and al Zawahiri on November 1, 2001; a letter produced by bin Laden on October 6, 2002, sometimes entitled To the Americans (Lawrence, 2005, p. 160); and a videotape produced by bin Laden on October 29, 2004, sometimes entitled The Towers of Lebanon. In all three messages, al Qa'ida had specific goals: to impose ethical responsibility on the American citizens (bin Laden, 2001, November 10), to denounce American culture for its moral laxness and its failure to embrace the laws of God (bin Laden, 2002, October 6), and to encourage moral examination of the policies of the government the American people had elected (bin Laden, 2004, October 29).

Ethical and Moral Positions in al Qa'ida Public Relations Campaigns RQ2 focused on what kind of arguments al Qa’ida has used to explain the organization’s activities and purposes to American publics. Ethical and moral positions within al Qa'ida public relations campaigns are often expressed in a form that is common in the Islamic jihadi tradition.

Lawrence (2005) explained that in the Arab fatwa tradition "opinions are... couched as detailed responses to specific questions, broken down into sections and subsections in such a way as to emphasize the irrefutable logic of jihad" (p. 160). This reliance on logic and rational thinking connects the al Qa'ida campaigns to traditions of jurisprudence in Islamic culture and to some assumptions of Western ethical traditions--namely, that humans are rational creatures and must base moral decisions on reasoning.


Three issues form the core of ethical explorations in al Qa'ida campaigns:

self-defense, defense of oppressed Muslims in Palestine, and freeing Islamic holy sanctuaries from occupiers (bin Laden, 2001, October 21, p. 107). Bin Laden acknowledged that al Qa'ida had encouraged Muslims to act in favor of these causes, and contended that "if inciting for these reasons is terrorism, and if killing those that kill our sons is terrorism, then let history witness that we are terrorists" (p. 107). These issues are transformed into specific ethical quandaries when directed at an American audience: the killing of innocent people; whether non-believers can be treated morally; and individual responsibility in ethical issues.

Ethical Argument: Self Defense and the Death of Innocents Several ethical questions have been posed and answered by al Qa'ida campaigns that relate to self-defense: can innocent people in foreign countries be killed to achieve self-defense and what kind of self-defense is permitted? Al Qa'ida has affirmed the principle of self-defense for people living in Muslim countries. This ethical argument takes two forms: defense against direct foreign attacks on Muslims and resistance to the oppression of Muslim groups. Direct attacks are defined both as sanctions and blockades imposed on Muslim countries and military operations that kill and injure Muslim citizens in their home countries (bin Laden, 2001, October 7; bin Laden, 2002, October 6).

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