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Credibility talk in public diplomacy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2011


‘Politics has become a contest of competitive credibility’, argued Nye in Soft Power. Indeed, being perceived as honest and reliable is a necessary condition for obtaining and holding the attention of target audiences, as well as for effective persuasion, which is the objective of strategic communication. This task has become all the more difficult with the explosion of information sources and the discreditation efforts of opponents, but it is an essential element in the conduct of public diplomacy. How, then, do states and other international actors go about establishing their credibility while undermining that of opponents? This article employs rhetorical theory, impression management theory, and account theory to situate contests of credibility within the broader context of the accountability of social conduct. The theoretical part discusses the rhetorical strategies that actors use to credit their accounts and discredit those of their rivals. The empirical part addresses the debate between Israel and human rights groups over the Qana bombing incident of July 2006. The analysis of the blame imposition strategies used by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the accounts offered by Israel, indicates the range and variability of credibility talk and the rules for crediting accounts that underlie it.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2011

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1 Nye, Joseph S., The Paradox of American Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 106Google Scholar .

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8 The widespread concern of social actors with credibility is usually attributed to the demands of persuasion (or, in bargaining, compliance), but symbolic interactionism, which underlies the theoretical section of this article, has also drawn attention to processes of identity and role validation. For the best statement of this argument, see McCall, George J. and Simmons, J. L., Identities and Interactions, rev. ed., (New York: The Free Press, 1978)Google Scholar . Each perspective has a different focus, but the two are in many ways complementary.

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27 Perelman, Chaim, The Realm of Rhetoric (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 9Google Scholar .

28 Ibid., p. 3.

29 Ibid., p. 2, emphasis in original.

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33 Ibid., p. 132.

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36 The two explanations can be seen as complementary if an actor first seeks to construct a certain identity for social power reasons, then is forced to protect it if it is challenged by another actor or an audience.

37 Tedeschi and Riess, ‘Identities’, pp. 5–10. A ‘predicament of image enhancement’, on the other hand, occurs when due credit for positive consequences is under threat of denial.

38 Schlenker, Barry R., Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1980), p. 131Google Scholar .

39 Scott, Marvin B. and Lyman, Stanford M., ‘Accounts’, American Sociological Review, 33:1 (1968), p. 46CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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44 Schlenker, , Impression Management, p. 136Google Scholar , emphasis added.

45 Ibid.

46 See also Edwards, Derek and Potter, Jonathan, Discursive Psychology (London: Sage Publications, 1992)Google Scholar .

47 Credibility is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for persuasion. It is not a necessary condition because, as Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson note in their discussion of the effectiveness of attractive communicators in advertising, ‘we hold our beliefs for other reasons in addition to our desire to be correct and to size up the world accurately. We hold our beliefs and attitudes in order to define and make sense of our selves’. See their Age of Propaganda, rev.ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2001), p. 131Google Scholar , emphasis in original. Credibility is not a sufficient condition, because it can be overridden by other factors, such as resistance due to incompatible values or identities. However, other things being equal, source credibility is the foremost factor among the source characteristics that are found to affect persuasiveness. See Milburn, Michael A., Persuasion and Politics: The Social Psychology of Public Opinion (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1991), p. 107Google Scholar ; and Pornpitakpan, ‘the Persuasiveness of Source Credibility’.

48 Watson, Tony J., ‘Rhetoric Discourse and Argument in Organizational Sense Making: A Reflexive Tale’, Organization Studies, 16:5 (1995), p. 806CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

49 The table draws on Schutz, Astrid, ‘Assertive, Offensive, Protective, and Defensive Styles of Self-Presentation: A Taxonomy’, The Journal of Psychology, 132:6 (1998), pp. 611628CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; McGraw, Kathleen M., ‘Managing Blame: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Political Accounts’, American Political Science Review, 85:4 (1991), pp. 11331157CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; and Schlenker, Impression Management. As suggested by Benoit, a rhetorical strategy is ‘an abstract or general concept that represents a goal or an effect sought by discourse’. Tactics are the actual means by which strategies are pursued or operationalised. See Benoit, , Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies, p. 80Google Scholar .

50 Tedeschi and Riess, ‘Identities’, p. 6.

51 In McGraw's accounts scheme (see ‘Managing Blame’, which deals with explanatory tactics to which public officials resort), reframing of outcomes is a form of justification. Because reframing can operate on its own or in conjunction with excuses or justification, I prefer to treat it as a separate category.

52 The actor may also partially or fully accept responsibility and apologise for an action or outcome for which it is blamed (this is variously called regret, concessions, apologies, or remediation). Although this is also a remedial tactic that is applied in a predicament of image protection, it does not have the quality of a proffered explanation that defines an account.

53 In the empirical section, I assume that these tactics can be employed by any actor who imposes blame, not just the defender. Thus, in the Second Lebanon War, human rights organisations used these tactics to impose blame on Israel, whereas the latter, in the role of the defender, applied blame imposition primarily to its opponent ‘on the ground’, Hizbullah.

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55 Scott and Lyman, ‘Accounts’, p. 54, emphasis in original.

56 Bennett, W. Lance, ‘The Paradox of Public Discourse: A Framework for the Analysis of Political Accounts’, The Journal of Politics, 42:3 (1980), p. 806CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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58 Bennett, ‘the Paradox of Public Discourse’.

59 See Mor, ‘Accounts and Impression Management’.

60 This is a form of what game theorists call ‘separation of types’. See Morrow, ‘the Strategic Setting of Choices’, p. 87.

61 Entman, Robert M., Projections of Power (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 5Google Scholar , emphasis deleted.

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63 Barnett, , Dialogues in Arab Politics, p. 39Google Scholar . For the concept of ‘the definition of the situation’ in symbolic interactionism, see Perinbanayagam, R. S., ‘The Definition of the Situation: An Analysis of the Ethnomethodological and Dramaturgical View’, The Sociological Quarterly, 15 (1974), pp. 521541CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

64 Motivation, as a determinant of future actions, is of course a matter of credibility in bargaining as well, which is where the logic of costly signalling, such as audience costs, comes into play. See Fearon, ‘Domestic Political Audiences’. In blame reduction strategies, the action has already occurred, and its post-hoc evaluation depends on an audience's perception of the actor's motivations. In both cases, the issue arises because motivations are not directly observable and must be inferred (see the ‘“other minds” problem’ in Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve, Explaining and Understanding International Relations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), chap. 8Google Scholar .

65 Bennett, ‘the Paradox of Public Discourse’, p. 800.

66 This example also illustrates how in real-world account tactics are related in intricate ways. Thus, to invoke self-defence as a norm (justification) requires the actor also to argue that its actions were subjectively understood as such, rather than as offensive, at the time (‘we did not intend X’ in excuses) and that the actual circumstances of the event (reframing) made this understanding reasonable. Such an account may simultaneously also involve tactics of blame imposition.

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75 Myre, Greg, ‘Israel Fights Back Against War Critics’, New York Times (5 December 2006)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 17 February 2007.

76 ‘Qana’ had a special significance in that context, since it was also the site of an 18 April 1996 incident in which an Israeli artillery shell, fired during ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ against Hizbullah, hit a UN compound near Qana and killed 106 Lebanese civilians of the 800 who took shelter there.

77 ‘Israel/Lebanon: Qana Death Toll at 28’, Human Rights Watch, Beirut (2 August 2006)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 24 November 2009.

78 Ha'aretz (31 July 2006).

79 Ibid.

80 Mor, ‘Accounts and Impression Management’.

81 For a highly critical analysis of humanitarian NGOs, especially as concerns Israel, see Steinberg, Gerald M., ‘Soft Power Play Hardball: NGOs Wage War Against Israel’, Israel Affairs, 12:4 (2006), pp. 748768CrossRefGoogle Scholar . My concern in this article, however, is not with evaluating the credibility of NGOs but rather with how they promote it in their rhetoric.

82 Hizbullah's rhetoric on Qana is not addressed in this article, although the organisation's media, especially Al Manar, was active in propagating graphic pictures from the site of the bombing. See Kalb, Marvin and Saivetz, Carol, ‘The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetric Conflict’, The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 12:3 (2007), pp. 4366CrossRefGoogle Scholar . The focus on the Israel-NGO interaction can be justified by the importance to Israel of Western public opinion, whose exposure to the raw materials provided by Hizbullah was mediated by the Western media and the humanitarian organisations. Credibility in the Israel-Hizbullah case was related more to psychological warfare and to domestic (and Arab) audiences.

83 See {}. The site provides (under the title ‘terror from Lebanon’) a large collection of various documents related to the war, such as official government and military communiqués, policy statements, press conferences, media interviews, public addresses, etc.

84 See, respectively, {} and {}.

85 Mor, ‘the Rhetoric of Public Diplomacy’, tested the predicaments framework for general themes of self-presentation in official texts, applying a coding protocol in a thematic content analysis.

86 Wood, Linda A. and Kroger, Rolf O., Doing Discourse Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000), p. 8Google Scholar .

87 Hoffman, Gil, ‘Israel's delay in screening Kana footage causes PR disaster’, The Jerusalem Post (31 2006)Google Scholar .

88 ‘Israel Defense Forces press conference following the Kafr Qana incident’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (30 July 2006).

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 ‘Excerpts from statement by Defense Minister Amir Peretz to the Knesset’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (31 July 2006).

92 Hoffman, ‘Israel's delay’.

93 ‘Statement by Ambassador Dan Gillerman before the UN Security Council’, Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN (30 July 2006).

94 ‘Incident in Kafr Qana’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (30 July 2006).

95 ‘Israel Defense Forces press conference following the Kafr Qana incident’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (30 July 2006).

96 Ibid.

97 ‘Amnesty International Missions to Lebanon and Israel’, Amnesty International, News Service # 201 (2 August 2006)Google Scholar .

98 ‘Israel/Lebanon: End Indiscriminate Strikes on Civilians’, Human Rights Watch (3 August 2006)Google Scholar .

99 Ibid.

100 ‘Open letter to members of the UN Security Council on the situation in Lebanon/Israel’, Amnesty International, News Service #202 (2 August 2006)Google Scholar , emphasis added.

101 ‘Document – Israel: IDF inquiry into Qana a whitewash’, Amnesty International, News Service #202 (3 August 2006)Google Scholar .

102 ‘International Inquiry Needed into Israeli Air Strike’, Human Rights Watch (1 August 2006)Google Scholar .

103 Ibid.

104 ‘Israel Defense Forces press conference following the Kafr Qana incident’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (30 July 2006).

105 ‘Open letter to members of the UN Security Council on the situation in Lebanon/Israel’, Amnesty International, News Service #202 (2 August 2006)Google Scholar .

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116 Fierke, Karin M., Changing Games, Changing Strategies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 19Google Scholar , emphasis in original.

117 Rosenau, , Turbulence in World Politics, p. 201Google Scholar .

118 Arnold, Carroll C., Introduction to The Realm of Rhetoric by Perelman, Chaim (Note Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. xiGoogle Scholar , emphasis in original.

119 For the text of Stevenson's address, see: {} accessed 15 January 2009. Zorin's reply can be found at: {} accessed 15 January 2009.

120 For details on the KAL 007 incident, see: {} accessed 15 January 2009.

121 Rosenau discusses this case and the KAL 007 incident as examples of ‘relations of proof’ in world politics. See Turbulence in World Politics, pp. 207–8.

122 Manheim, Jarol B., ‘Strategic Public Diplomacy: Managing Kuwait's Image During the Gulf Conflict’, in Bennett, W. L. and Paletz, D. L. (eds), Taken by Storm: The Media, Public Opinion, and US Foreign Policy in the Gulf War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 131148Google Scholar .

124 President Bush has subsequently admitted that ‘the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq’ {} accessed 15 January 2009.