Discourse of dilemmas : an analysis of government communicators' talk

H. te Molder

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This is a study of government communication planners' talk. While government communication has increasingly become the topic of methodical precept, studies on the mundane practice of government communication are rare. The current study attempts to fill this major gap. More specifically, the aim of the study is to explain the interactional resources which communication planners use to make sense of government policies and the actions they may accomplish through their reports on these policies.

    In its method and perspective, the study is an attempt to forestall the idealization of communication planners' practices which can be found in many of the introductory books on government communication. It draws on a form of discourse analysis which studies talk in its ' natural ' surroundings. Rather than considering language as a neutral medium for the description of reality, discourse analysis as developed by the British social psychologists Potter, Edwards and Wetherell, focuses on the social and constructive nature of language. Informed by such diverse sources as linguistic philosophy, ethnomethodology, post- structuralism and social studies of science, its concern is with the things people do with their language and the contextual resources they deploy for these actions.

    Discourse analysis sheds new light on the nature of government communication. In its official appearance, government communication reflects the traditional conception of language as a passive medium for the transmission of information. It implies that communication planners, that is, government communicators and policy experts, can transmit political messages without touching upon or 'contaminating' the nature and aims of the policies to be communicated. From a discourse-analytic perspective, however, government communication is not so much representation as representational practice or discursive representation. This thesis shows how and to what purpose communication planners represent policies when producing a government communication campaign.

    The data on which this study is based, has been collected at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment in the Netherlands. It concerns detailed transcriptions of 'natural' conversations between government communicators, policy makers and advertising managers. Four government communication campaigns were chosen for this study: the Disability Facilities Act or WVG campaign, the Disability Insurance Act or WAO campaign, the campaign on the Social Fiscal number or SoFi campaign and, finally, the campaign against Sexual Harassment.

    Chapter 5 is the first analytical chapter. It explores in detail how communication planners formulate the central message of the campaign. In particular, I focus on how communication planners make sense of government policies by juxtaposing and contrasting the needs of what they consider to be their main audiences. Their active orientation to the wishes of varying audiences, ranging from politicians to press and public, establishes a complex picture of often contradictory claims as the starting-point for their message. Depending on the target group they orient to, communication planners are either caught in an efficacydilemma or in a political dilemma. These dilemmas are managed by a variety of discursive devices.

    First, in the case of the campaign against Sexual Harassment, communication planners make sense of the policies in terms of an efficacy dilemma: how to make the message known to the 'official' target group without hurting its feelings? I show how they manage this dilemma by formulating it from a rhetorical point of view, namely, by taking potential counterarguments from sex offenders and their victims into account. The problem is how to meet these counterarguments without changing the policies to be communicated.

    In the other three campaigns, that is, the WVG (Disability Facilities Act)campaign, the WA O (Disability Insurance Act)-campaign and the campaign on the Social Fiscal number or SoFi campaign, communication planners are caught in a political dilemma: how to convey the message without compromising the government? In contrast to the campaign against Sexual Harassment, in which the 'official' target group is oriented to, communication planners predominantly attend to the political domain as being their target audience. Whereas, in the campaign against sexual harassment, 'not hurting people's feelings' is used as a way to make the message more effective, in these three other campaigns the adage 'not hurting people's feelings' is treated as a way to serve the putative interests of the government. In practice, this means avoiding rather than generating publicity about the sensitive aspects of the policies in question. Three discursive devices through which the political dilemma is managed, are distinguished: 'factual' or information campaigns, selective omissions and couching the message in terms of a shared interest of government and citizens.

    This picture of communication planners as participants who are actively involved in reformulating policies in order to satisfy the political audience and/or their official target groups, runs contrary to notions of communication planners as passive intermediaries who transmit their message to one specific target audience. Government communication that should 'stand for' or represent the views which are politically approved of, presumes a technical, linear relationship between the policy to be communicated and the communication which results from it. However, communication planners, while determining the central message of a campaign, put new life into apparently dead material. Communication planners mould and remould their messages in order to be able to satisfy a multiparty recipiency.

    In Chapter 6, I examine how communication planners, in their construction of government policies, attend to their own accountability. The chapter confines itself to accountability practices in the case of the WVG campaign, the WAO campaign and the SoFi campaign, that is, the campaigns in which the communication planners are caught in a political dilemma. Three observations indicate that through formulating the political dilemma, planners attend to their own problems of accountability. First, in those passages in which the contentiousness of the policies is at issue, communication planners try to secure their official neutral status: they portray themselves as participants who merely transmit government policies, thereby preventing others from holding them personally accountable for the content of the policies or their veiled presentation. I note that the attributions of accountability to the political domain, and, through these attributions, the planners' reference to their own neutrality, can be considered redundant. The fact that they confirm their official status, facing an audience of colleagues that can be expected to be familiar with their task, is a second indication that communication planners consider themselves at least potentially accountable for the policies to be communicated. Third, they underline this neutral status time and again. It is the persistent nature of this denial of accountability for 'controversial' policies, that works reflexively to mark its problematic character. I suggest that, in repeating their non-accountability, communication planners co-implicate each other in their own problems of accountability and 'fish' for solutions at the same time.

    The conclusion that, despite their neutral status, communication planners feel accountable for the policies they communicate to the public, helps us to understand why communication planners actively try to prevent political commotion. Appealing to a formally neutral stance is not treated by communication planners as a guarantee that they will not be held accountable anyway. Communication planners therefore employ a double defence against potential criticism. On the one hand, they try to establish and maintain their status as passive intermediaries of government policies, on the other, they formulate the message in such a way that they can be held accountable, if necessary. After the campaigns had taken place, communication planners again presented themselves as neutral messengers. Either they attributed the wish to compose veiled messages to other participants or they simply denied having tried to present the policies in a reduced or disguised form.

    Chapter 7 shows how the efficacy dilemma (how to make the message known to the 'official' target group without hurting its feelings) is rooted in the acceptance of accountability for the message. In contrast to the political dilemma, communication planners not only feel accountable for the policies to be communicated, but also accept this accountability. That is, they orient to sexual harassment as being a genuine problem, thereby allowing themselves to be held accountable for policies rooted in this problem. 1 argue that the acceptance of accountability for the policies results in a message which is designed to be effective. In the campaign against sexual harassment, the message is designed to convince boys that they are not 'entitled' to girls: no matter what the situation is, girls can refuse. Chapter 7 shows in detail that the message is made effective by heavily drawing on the known-in-common characteristics of sex offenders and their victims, which are precisely those which the message has to undermine.

    By drawing on putative common sense, communication planners try to meet the expectations of the target group to such an extent that the message is effective. However, the question is what this effectiveness comprises. This is also an important matter of negotiation for communication planners themselves. At the root of the efficacy dilemma is the question: to what extent do I have to meet the taken-for-granted assumption which 1 want to challenge? Solving this tension is a practical and ongoing task, which asks for an active involvement with the policy to be communicated, rather than a passive transmission of it. As in the case of campaigns with sensitive policies, communication planners are cautious in 'confessing' their concessions to the target group (the political audience or a group of citizens), or, in other words, their deviations from what they treat as the 'official' message. Communication planners always present themselves in terms of what they officially are: neutral messengers of government policies.

    In Chapter 8, I draw together the conclusions and provide some insight into the implications of the study. A main conclusion of this study is that communication planners are active participants in the process of formulating and reformulating government policies, rather than passive intermediaries of these policies. The neutral status of communication planners is used to perform defensive actions with. It is proposed to provide government communicators with the status of a policy maker. This status would bring their official accountability in line with their daily practice. Recent developments in communication studies advise communicators to lay aside their neutral role, and become official participants in policy processes. The role of the communicator would have to change from a passive intermediary into a facilitator. This can be considered a step forward. However, the status of facilitator may become be as problematic as the status of a passive intermediary. To a great extent, this depends on the kind of responsibility the facilitator is officially attributed with. This is an important new area of research. In any case, as long as communication planners are not fully and officially accountable for the policies they communicate, the tension will never entirely disappear.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van Woerkum, C.M.J., Promotor
    • Potter, J.A., Promotor, External person
    Award date18 Dec 1995
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054854944
    Publication statusPublished - 1995


    • government
    • public authorities
    • administration
    • information
    • work
    • sociology
    • communication
    • nonverbal communication
    • languages
    • terminology
    • persons


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