The ethical challenges of weaponized communication – Elizabeth Edwards

Joining me on this week’s episode is Elizabeth Edwards, the founder of Volume PR and the Engagement Science Lab. She is a strategist and futurist who has dedicated her career to closing the gap between the study of the mind and the business of engaging it. She discusses a number of important issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I have a degree in Organizational Communication, then applied that first working in the space division of Boeing, back when the International Space Station was still on the ground and being built. After my time there, went on to Ogilvy, a very large global PR agency specializing in tech, before I founded Volume PR. It’s been over 21 years ago now.

About seven years ago, we launched Engagement Science Lab, because we do things very differently at Volume. We’ve been very focused on the intersection of human behavior, science, cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral economics, and the practice of professional engagement and communication.

We don’t always describe it this way, but communication exists to influence and change behavior. Whether it’s a tiny change from a change in state of awareness, everything we’re doing is change.

Volume really focused on how we apply the sciences to be more effective. About seven years ago, we launched Engagement Science Lab. It’s where we focus on now creating science-based strategy and communication works for our clients. Now we are preparing the launch of the Civil Influence Institute.

Why don’t you tell me more about the Civil Influence Institute?

The Civil Influence Institute is something we are creating in response to the critical need we see for communication, both professional, institutional, and individual, to be considered through a lens of, how am I engaging others? How am I engaging myself? How am I engaging with respect to the agency of my audience, with respect to codes of civility? What does that really mean? We talk a lot about civility.

We talk a lot about being polite or being nice. But what does it really mean to shift our language institutionally and individually in order to align with civility? What are the specific actual practices, and not broad stroke things like being more empathetic. But how do we specifically change our language?

If your audience hasn’t seen it, one thing I think is so amazing to watch to really realize what’s going on in the moment in time that we are in today and the ethical challenge that we’re all facing, is a tremendous documentary called The Social Dilemma that was created by the Center for Humane Technology. It talks about how that science is being weaponized to manipulate and puppet us more and more.

My team and I, as we study the science, recognize the common theme here. Rather than being combined with all the things we know from the sciences about how to engage people in a harmonious way to create organic, fluid, positive change, we’re using and seeing others using some of these individual known scientific techniques to all but bludgeon people over the head.

Many of them are so based in fear motivation – pain, shame and very negative emotions. Those in certain fields are hyper manufacturing and falsifying known behavior triggers like scarcity and urgency. It is not right what it is doing to our employees, to our teams, to our audiences as marketers, professional communicators and leaders. I think the ethical challenge we all face and what is the core goal of Civil Influence Institute is, how can we all shift and evolve our communication with what we now know so as to affect change from with one another and in ourselves from a very positive base?

I was speaking Ken Kerrigan actually about something similar last week. I talked to my students about it. I say that in public relations, we have superpowers. We need to make sure we’re using them for good and not for evil.

We hold a very large microphone. When you speak to that many people, it has an effect. We are so normed in communication, especially in marketing, to look at things in a short-term gain perspective. What am I measuring this quarter, next quarter, this year? I think in doing so, we combine encourage what are the most blunt force object elements in the sciences that I can use? It is creating a norm that does not ultimately serve the goal of strategic communications leaders.

How do we recognize when we may be doing this unconsciously or when our clients are advocating for us to do it consciously? How do we step back and counsel against engaging this behavior?

There are so many things that are normed in our language. We need to create awareness around the norms in professional communication, marketing, advertising, and leadership around how we create a message, messaging, positioning, and core strategy.

We know all the brand persona maps, the empathy maps. Everything is “How do we start if we are going to be strategizing either to solve a business problem or to create positioning or messaging?” It’s around pain and gain. Here’s one example of a shift that we teach. It was a brilliant scientist, Daniel Kahneman who authored the book, Thinking Fast and Slow. He discovered prospect theory, which is that we respond more to a pain than to an equal gain. You tell people what they stand to lose, they’re far more likely to take action than if you tell them what they’re only going to gain.

This is one study in a sea of tens of thousands. Is it an important one? You better believe it. That is one example of one piece of scientific knowledge that has been normed across business to be how we now ideate to create strategy and thinking.

With our clients at Volume and Engagement Science Lab, we are focusing on what happens if we don’t base it in pain and gain. We have so many sophisticated scientific tools at our disposal, in addition to just knowledge of pain and gain. What happens when we actually base things on what we call attunement to audience agency? When I think of my audience as my ally, they are my equal. We are equally smart, equally capable.

When I think about not activating messaging and brainstorming with my team from a pain gain orientation, combined with thinking of my audience as equally brilliant as myself and capable, we come up with completely different messages, completely different solutions, completely different communication and outcomes.

Step one, how do we recognize this? There are so many ways that it’s present in our communication and that we will be teaching very specifically. We introduce concepts like thought-terminating cliches, thin versus thick evaluative language, eliminating “ought” terminology from leader, team and corporate communication

That pain, fear, and negative orientation is a place where I think we all have an opportunity to look over our messages and how we’re norming that language in the world.

I agree. When we worked with the Washington State Department of Health on their COVID-19 comms for the past two and a half years, we quickly realized when we were looking at making behavior change, it was working with the agency and empowering rather than showing the pain and the fear that would actually cause people to change their behavior.

There’s been a lot of discussion around microaggressions. But I haven’t seen as much discussion around thought-terminating cliches. What do you mean by that and what are some examples of those?

Thought terminating cliche is such an interesting area to delve into. I’m going to get a little personal for a second before I get into the specifics of how this manifests for us in business. I actually grew up, in what I now know to be a cult. That has given me a very different understanding and processing of our language. I read a lot of different books and study some of these things from some different perspectives.

In the world of cult knowledge, they talk a lot about this phraseology called “thought-terminating cliche.” I want you to think of any cliche that you might say at work, you might hear on your team, or you might use with yourself. What is happening subconsciously is that many of them are what is called thought terministic. They exist to tell you or the other person, “Stop thinking about it. Stop talking about it.”

Let’s use an example. Let’s say you and I are having a conversation. You’re chewing into something. You’re not sure how to handle it. It’s complex. I just say, “Mark, it is what it is.”

Bill Belichick says it every week in every press conference.

What we’re subconsciously communicating is, “I don’t want to keep talking to you about this. It is just what it is. You need to just accept that and move on.

Thought terminating cliches are one of many examples of thin evaluative language. We teach people how to shift to using more thick language. Most of all, for the people listening today, what I want you to know is when it comes to thought-terminating cliches, cliches can be used to be thought promotive. That is seldom ever the case. If it is, a leader, a PR person, or any kind of person behind a microphone saying it to an audience at large. It’s seldom the case even in interpersonal conversations, if you’re saying it to another person.

It can be for yourself, but they can also be very shaming in the way that we apply them to ourselves and therefore not healing and not positive or successful communication. What you want to think about is flag them, recognize if you’re using them. I think some of us have had them normed into our language by our family generational patterns more than others. But when you hear yourself saying one, cultivate a pause, just pause for a second. Tell the other person in that pause if you need to fill that space, “Wait a sec. I just learned about this thing called thought-terminating cliches, that when we say clichés, what’s subconsciously happening is that we’re stopping each other from thinking. That’s not what I’m meaning to do here right now. I want us to keep digging into this. Hang on. What do I want to stay instead?”

See what then comes out. Give yourself some of that space. We have been normed in so many subtle language actions that don’t serve our most evolved selves. We need to identify those and make those little shifts to get significantly more positive results and outcomes in marketing, business communication, public relations. We do so by respecting our audience in a different way that facilitates a deeper level of relationship, cooperation, and collaboration. That is the space from where we measure true success.

I think it’s great insight. Let’s take it to business. What are some other potentially unethical requests you’re seeing happen in the industry?

The Center for Humane Technology talks about how new technologies are not ethical or not civil in a way that they influence. Some of the folks that we work with may come across some of these technologies and think, “This is potentially something great for us to work with.” What’s really been an interesting part of our process is getting into the ethics of some of these tools and, are they really the thing that we want to be using and the way that we want to be engaging our audience? We know from subconscious science; I can manipulate a sale out of someone by exploiting emotion and really getting them all super hyper worked up. But that is not civil. That is not ethical. It is not moral. We will not do it that way.

It also only gets you short-term gains. It isn’t what creates a rich, deepened relationship with that audience so that they keep buying from you, they don’t unsubscribe after three months.

Have you ever been on a website where there are popups saying, “Mark just downloaded this newsletter. Sarah just bought this course. Heather’s over here getting in this webinar. There are only two minutes left until it starts.” There are all those little popups, just, “Ding, ding, ding, pay attention to me. Look, look, look, everybody’s doing this. Everybody’s doing this. Everybody’s doing this. Hurry up. There’s not enough. You need to hurry up and rush too.”

Just a few times.

Shortsighted thinking, shortsighted strategy, I’m going to be so bold as to call it that.  If someone thinks that’s a good idea, we push back with our clients. There’s a difference between the outcomes you get when you electrocute a few people with a few known things from the sciences, such as those types of crappy little tools, versus when you use the science and awareness of that to create harmonious communication that is in attunement with your audience, where you respect them, and a relationship ensues. That’s where public relations, has always differed from our related fields and where we have an opportunity now today to lead a new movement into what it really specifically needs, what we really exactly do and don’t do, what methods we continue, and what we now recognize is time to be retired from our strategic consideration because we see what it’s really doing to our audiences and to ourselves. We’re going to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Fred Garcia mentioned that. He says it in terms of long-term greedy is good. Short-term greedy is bad. That’s where you really get into the unethical issues.

You mentioned retiring things. If you had to pick one tactic or one technology to retire because it is so unethical or so negative, what would it be?

I love this question. The thing I’m working most on retiring myself right now is the word “should.” “Ought” language is actually very, very thin. It is something where we are short cutting the point and just filling in a “should.” At Volume PR Engagement Science Lab and in the Civil Influence Institute, we are very clear with everyone that we are all doing this together. We are all learning these language changes together. One of the really fun things that we all do in real time is awareness that we are trying to eliminate “ought” language. That is the words “should, could, would, must,” those types of things. When you find yourself going in to use the word “should,” what would you say instead that doesn’t have an “ought” type of a base?

Think of language a little bit like chemistry in that everything has a base. If an “ought” is the base, then you know what I’m doing subconsciously? I’m subconsciously in the base of shame for my audience. That is not your most powerful position, my friends. That is not my most powerful position when talking to myself to encourage personal change or when talking to millions of people about new things to consider. If we eliminate “ought” language while we are in strategy, in messaging, positioning, and then just in our day-to-day language as well, and just like I said back with the cliches, when you hear yourself saying it, pause, tell the other person, “Hang on a sec. I just learned that this actually has subconscious ties to shame. Of course, I don’t want to be doing that. None of us want to be doing that. Let me think of another way to say it.”

I want to also invite you to consider this. I want you to grade the sentences. We do this a lot in PR. Probably a lot of you already do, where you’re looking at language and saying, “This sentence is probably a five. Maybe it’s only a two in terms of its power, its clarity, its meaningfulness.” I want you to grade what the “should” sentence would’ve been and then grade what your new sentence is as it comes out. What we consistently see is those “should” sentences are twos or threes. They’re kind of lazy. When we give ourselves a whopping 10 or 15 seconds to think a little bit more into what a non “ought” sentence would be, it’s a 10 every time. It moves us forward as the team so much more.

I think that is great advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

I can’t really think of any particular piece of advice I received from someone else in the ethics realm recently as much as I can think of a question I heard on a podcast the other day. This question is really reverberating across the business and across my soul.

What are people for?

What are people for?

As people, are we here to be drips in your funnel? Are we here to be prospects to be nurtured, or are we here to be individuals with whom to have a relationship, collaborate, cooperate, and co-create?

When we shift the whole base where we strategize and ideate from, we get real lined up with people being my equal. We unlock an entirely different level of how we think about what our businesses are capable of doing, what our communication is here to even say in the first place, what campaigns and strategies we use to work with others. We come up with completely different solutions.

One example I love to share when I’m speaking in conferences. Communication is behavior change. We have the goal of creating communication to increase blood donations in our community. We are experiencing blood donation shortages. It’s your responsibility to increase blood donation. How are you going to do that?

We put up a slide of the things that are done. Alliteration, rhyming, stickers, pledge drives. They’ve increased their effectiveness somewhat by doing these things. But are you going to change your behavior and go out and donate blood tomorrow because a drive set up down the street and they have a really cool sticker? You are not five years old, so I’m going to propose no, you’re not going to.


People do amazing things for a free T-shirt. But I know what you’re saying.

Free has some big power. My six-year-old will definitely do something for a sticker. Do I appreciate being given something instead of nothing? Of course, that is a kindness. But if we are faced with a true critical blood shortage in our community and it is your job and my job to figure out how we solve that problem, the things that we are ideating from the bases that I talked about in this whole call so far get us to solutions like the, “Giving is living,” the pledge drives, and all the things that we’re doing already. But when we think about, what are people for? When we think about more sophisticated uses of the science in more synchronized ways, married to attunement to audience agency – then what you get are outcomes like what they do in Sweden, where blood donors get a text message every time their blood saves someone’s life.

Let’s sit with the impact of that campaign for a second.

You can get a sticker, you can sign a pledge, you can do these types of things. Or when you go take this selfless time, I’m going to respect you enough and your time enough to make the campaign and the change be, the communication be that you get to know when that actually made a difference. Are you going to go donate blood tomorrow if that’s in place?

I think that’s a very powerful motivator.

It comes back to, what’s our audience really for? Do I need to paternalize to them? Do they just need to be told, “We’re really short on blood?” or do I need to create communication and campaigns that respect them, engage them as my equal. That is where we measure true success and change.

I could continue this conversation for hours. But unfortunately, there is a limit. If people want to find out more, where can they go for additional information? and are two websites you can definitely come, connect with me, and learn more. will be the home of Civil Influence Institute here in the next quarter or so as those elements are launched.

Listen to the full podcast, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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