The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

Our discussions surrounding Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ and rhetoric have, like many of our classmates, led me to some clear and obvious connections with electronic mediums today. Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere evolved as a political attempt to reinvigorate the Enlightenment project of freedom, ‘through the reconstruction of a public sphere in which reason might prevail, not the instrumental reason of modern practice but the critical reason that represents the best of the democratic tradition’ (Ku, 2000). Habermas argued that this sphere emerged as a means for citizens to express their opinions openly and free of political constraints – democracy. These individuals are sharing opinions, thoughts, stories, and anything else they feel like sharing. As we know, the Internet, more notably, social media platforms, is facilitating this. This online discourse has been celebrated as a means for promoting democracy and giving everyone a platform to have their individual voice heard. While I agree, some recent experiences have caused me to sit back and reflect.

This semester I had the privilege of lecturing for the COMM PBRL 3013 01: Mass Media and Public Opinion undergraduate class on the subject of the discourse of fear, and the “tough on crime” agenda in media. The relationship between fear and the media dates back to as far as the First World War however now with social media engagement at an all time high, it is particularly prevalent today. I come to question if citizen journalism is a true form of democracy, as Habermas argues, or if it is just adding fuel to the fire.

I, along with the majority of our country, flew to Twitter as soon as the news of the shootings on parliament hill broke. In fact, I believe the news broke on Twitter. It was the personal accounts of those on the scene that provided us the up-to-the minute updates about the situation and the well-being of those involved. As a society, we have come to expect this speed during crisis. The public is so starved for information, the set themselves up to be vulnerable to just about anything someone has to say. As social media is a public forum and citizens are free to say what they wish, feeds can often become more of a he said, she said, rather than factual information. As the public scans through their feed, they are absorbing each post, regardless of the author’s credibility. Media has had a poor reputation of trust in the past for pushing messages of propaganda and stories that advance government agenda. As Habermas suggested, the public is looking to get away from governmental constraints and discuss openly with other citizens. People are more likely to relate with and trust the average citizen as opposed to the media’s formulated – assumed – politically driven messaging.

We are in the now generation. This is a time where society is accustomed to instant gratification and no longer enjoys it, but demands it. How we receive our news is no different. Citizen journalists are commenting on current events at such a pace, credible news outlets and law enforcement are having difficulty keeping up. In the absence of the official story, the public relies on these citizens for their information. This past fall I attended a media panel where the largest media outlets in Newfoundland gathered to discuss social media and its influence on the delivery of the news. Interestingly, a few outlets stated that many of their reporters are sent into the field to gather what they can as quickly as they can, regardless of if it has been fact checked. They simply send out a disclaimer that this is not the official story. For the general public however, if you are reading a news update from a CBC reporter, you are lead to believe it is to be true. This is the thin line that citizen journalism walks. Despite the mistrust many major news sources receive, it may be in the public’s best interest to look to them for facts rather than their fellow tweeter.

During PR Ethics and Leadership this term, we spent time discussing online privacy and the ethics surrounding the perceived government control over our Internet presence. As Habermas argues, the public sphere should be free for open discussion, free of governmental influence. That said, there are many occasions where, in my opinion, governmental implication has proven to be critical. If the government had not had access to the public’s social media and online activity, alerts to potential terrorist or dangerous events may not have been flagged. With the globalization of these social sites, individuals from around the world are using this medium to communicate about any subject of their choice. This could be concerning to some interest groups. Outside of clear public threats such as terrorism, there are other dangers such as child pornography, or sex trafficking. As outlined, the public sphere is meant to be a source of communication at the public’s discretion. Who is to say that a group of individuals cannot come together to discuss such disturbing activity?

Overall, I am positive about Habermas’s idea of the public sphere. As an avid user of social media and someone who goes online to gather and share my opinion, this form of free speech is both useful and crucial in my daily life. Personally, I am more than comfortable with the government have an observer role in the Internet as I don’t believe I have anything I need to hide. I take a utilitarian approach to this issue and would relinquish my privacy for the greater good if that could lead to the capture of a potential pedophile or terrorist. I understand that this comparison is quite dramatic, but I think it delivers the point.

How do you feel about the public sphere online? If the government is involved, is it still a public sphere?


Ess, Charles. (2013). Digital Media Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley. Retrieved from

Ku, Agnes S. (July 2000) ‘Revisiting the Notion of the “Public” in Habermas’s Theory – Toward a theory of politics and public credibility’, Sociological Theory 18 (2): 216-240.

Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.


The objective of trust

The readings on rhetoric were profoundly applicable to the classes I teach: Communications Management I and II. Taught as a continuum, the classes begin with defining PR, including the history and ethical implications, the core competencies of the communications professional, now and in the future, and then onto strategy and planning, beginning with the RACE formula (Research Analysis Communications Evaluation).

I teach my students about the communications objective/engagement continuum: awareness, understanding, acceptance and then behaviour change. It originally applied to employee engagement, but it easily works when explaining the various levels of communications objectives. But the article by Robert Heath adds an added layer: trust. He argues, and I agree, that the value that public relations has to society is that of trust. (Heath, Robert, 2000). “Trust is the ultimate goal, beyond understanding and agreement” (Heath, R., p. 80).

And if we think about it, and most of our readings, and much of the news that relates to our readings, it really all comes down to trust. “People identify with those they trust,” writes Heath. “They also trust those who enact and advocate narratives that they accept and enact” (Heath, p. 81). Let’s look at a couple of examples of misplaced trust, ripped from the headlines:

1. Ghomeshi. In his mea culpa “it’s them not me” Facebook post, he uses his popularity and power — just as the mass media use their power as discussed in this week’s readings on mass media — to build trust. He all but says, “trust me, it’s their word against mine” when he writes: “But I am telling this story to you so the truth is heard.” As we witnessed in the days following, his was not the truth we trusted, despite his position of power. To their credit, his public relations firms ended their relationship with them, ensuring their trust and their reputation stayed intact. They saw, as Heath outlines, that their own credibility was based on “unfailing demonstrated commitment to advance society because of the good of society, not the singular good of the advocate” (Heath, p. 81).

2. Bill Cosby. Cosby’s reputation as everyone’s favourite 80s-sweater wearing funny dad is faltering everyday as allegations of sexual harassment and drugged rape continue. “We may be looking at America’s greatest serial rapist that ever got away with this for the longest amount of time,” his latest victim has said. “He got away with it because he was hiding behind the image of Cliff Huxtable.” And the longer he stays quiet, the longer his source credibility disintegrates. This is one situation no public relations firm would be willing to take on. It’s just too late.

If we as practitioners of public relations adhere to the Bryant-Wallace “The Oath of a Public Speaker” (Heath, p. 79), we will all be doing our profession proud — a profession that suffers from the ironic shoemaker-syndrome (our own profession suffers from bad PR). Slightly amended it could very well be our own Hippocratic Oath, perhaps a necessary step when the notion of trust is becoming increasingly just that: a notion. We must all act in the public interest, as the CPRS definition of Public Relations states, not in the interest of Jian, or Bill, or a particular government. It’s our “do no harm” clause. Trust me.

Engagement but also communications objectives

Engagement but also communications objectives

Behind the rhetoric – female politicans are still searching for an equal voice

Our class readings inspired me to analyze the role of female politicians through a rhetorical lens. Interestingly, Sutherland and Sutcliffe (1999) found that the rhetorical tradition developed into a much narrower meaning throughout the centuries, one which “confined it to the public discourse of men of the ruling class.” (p. 10). This phenomenon is still alive today in the role and image of 21st century female politicians.

The First Lady ultimately set the stage for women in the public sphere, as they took on the role of compassionate supporters and motherly figures (Griswold, 2007). Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the public image of female politicians is influenced heavily by the idea that political rhetoric is primarily ‘masculine.’ Griswold (2007) explains that “a woman, unlike a man in politics, must balance addressing her gender with a masculine and powerful rhetoric. If a female politician upsets the balance by coming across as too forceful, then she in untrustworthy, and in contrast, if she is too ‘feminine’ then she is deemed unfit to lead” (p. 3). Although female politicians have come a long way, media coverage reveals that lingering sexism towards female candidates is still very prevalent.

Sarah Palin is arguably the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. Throughout her political campaign, news sources emphasized her physical appearance and publicized her past participation in beauty pageants. The media used Palin’s former pageant career to dismiss her as a serious candidate with news anchors referring to her as the following: “The race for the U.S. presidency is not just one more beauty contest,” “Caribou Barbie,” “Presidential Barbie” and “Malibu Barbie” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009, p. 330 – 331). The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to discredit her political agenda and view her as incompetent.

On the other hand, Hilary Clinton executed a much more mature and commanding image to the public. However, her sometimes “intimidating nature” and decision to pursue a more dominating leadership style was seen as fair game to many media outlets. She was often identified in the media as not being ‘feminine’ enough with headlines identifying her as “calculating,” “overly ambitious,” “cold,” “scary” and “intimidating” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009). The media often criticized her attempt to assert a traditionally ‘masculine’ rhetoric and viewed her husband, Bill Clinton, as a source of necessary aid and strength.

In Canadian politics, this issue was brought to life after two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against two of their Liberal counterparts. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric surrounding this case is largely focused on the fact that Parliament doesn’t have a formal process to deal with these types of allegations. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a new policy to deal with harassment issues, but the fact that there wasn’t one already in place is extremely troubling (to say the least). Canadian Parliament seems to be living in another decade when it comes to the treatment of female staff and officials in the workplace. Despite the bickering and finger–pointing between the New Democrats and the Liberals, Canadians are expecting more from all members of Parliament and want to see action and change so that future issues of harassment are properly addressed.

After diving deeper into the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton and Canada’s recent harassment issue at Parliament Hill, it is clear that female politicians are continuously struggling to fit into a public sphere that the media and public deem as ‘masculine.’ To move beyond this issue, future political leaders need to openly discuss issues of sexism and harassment, as well as adopt a rhetoric that is neither defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ It is also crucial that journalists, PR professionals, members of the public and politicians hold the media accountable for acts of sexism against female (or male) politicians. It will be interesting to see where the future of politics goes and if it is possible to create a gender-neutral public sphere for political debate and societal change.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts.




Griswold, D. (2007). The politics of speech: engendering the public sphere. Retrieved from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sutherland, C. M. & Sutcliffe, R. J. (1999). The Changing Tradition: Women in the History of Rhetoric. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Winfrey, K. L. & Carlin, D. B. (2009). Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage. Communications Studies, 60, 326-343.

To act or to react: shaping external conversations through social media

After listening to our October 27th blackboard collaborate session I was very intrigued to analyze aspects of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Habermas’s critical theory and Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. One comment that really sparked my interest is that we live in a society where “we act, rather than react” to important issues. This statement struck a chord in my professional life, as the industry I work in strives to understand what Canadians know and think about energy in order to “react” to negative opinions.

Growing up in Fort McMurray and now working in external communications for an oil sands company, I have found myself smack dab in the middle of an “oil sands PR war.” There is rarely a day that goes by where at least one special interest group, environmental activist or Hollywood celebrity, isn’t trending online for taking another critical shot at Canada’s oil sands. These debates mostly materialize on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, highlighting the idea that social media is breaking the hegemonic dominance of mass media. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony describes the “ways particular political forces achieved hegemonic authority, and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overthrow the existing hegemony” (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. 15-16). The Internet gives people the ability to freely share their thoughts and express views that often differ from traditional mass media outlets. This online world has created a counterhegemonic platform of conversation and debate where marginalized voices utilize the virtual sphere. Social media heightens the public voice and demands a level of connectivity that companies cannot choose to ignore.

Social Media consumes my working life from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning. My team’s approach is to turn on all commenting functions and enable direct engagement with company spokespersons. This open dialogue requires us to respond quickly in order to stimulate conversation and share our company’s story effectively. Gleick (2000) comments on this quest for speed in our lives, from television without commercials, smartphones, to “instant” microwavable meals. We desire instantaneous communication and loathe devices that waste or delay our time. We live in an age where information spreads like wildfire and companies need to monitor the Internet carefully. The worst thing a company can do is stay silent or refuse to comment during a conversation or issue. While the answer may not be readily available, I have learned that it is important to emphasis accessibility and availability – to put the brakes on potential controversy.

Habermas’s principles of the ideal speech situation outline mutual understanding, truth, sincere expression, the right to speak and legitimacy as key factors to maintaining communication and developing common understanding (Gingrich, n.d.). These values speak to the fact that companies cannot just act, but need to react with knowledge to build credibility with audiences. Cenovus Energy has attempted to “react” to negative perceptions of the oil sands industry with the following ads:

Through the lens of Habermas’s principles, the company’s attempt to foster a responsible conversation hinges on the mutual understanding that oil adds legitimate value to our daily lives. Furthermore, their ability to connect the resource to life-changing, inspiring situations leaves the viewer with impressions of sincere expression and truth. Cenovus has placed these ads on YouTube and Facebook in order to tap into the social media realm and encourage dialogue on one of the industry’s most controversial platforms. Many oil sands companies are following suit to help set the stage for a more open and honest debate. This discourse is explained by Habermas as one where “all concerned take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where noting coerces anyone except the force of a better argument” (Gingrich, n.d., p. 10). His thoughts capture the ability of social media to bring diverse people from all over the world together to talk about common concerns. While social media comes with its own set of unique challenges, it ultimately forces companies to actively listen and guide their business with transparency. My daily attempt to react, rather than simply act in the face of controversy has become the most rewarding aspect of my career.

Please feel free to share your comments below. I’m very interested to learn how other companies/industries use social media to shape external conversations.


Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. (2006). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Gingrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved from

Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Pantheon Books.

A little bit of everything…

Sex. Terrorism. Elections. Theory. I sit here with a rather large dilemma: what should I blog about? My head is filled with thoughts and ideas, applications of theories and general questions about Habermas and recent events that I could tie him (and critical theory) to. Not a bad problem to have. Among the swirling thoughts:

  • There’s the Ottawa shooting, and ideas about state surveillance, open government, mental illness versus terrorism, the media’s failure (or not) and official statements. Will an “ideal speech situation” occur about the different aspects of the shooting and will we come to a “mutually understood truth,” as Levine puts it in his blog? Call me a pessimist, but I’m not holding my breath. (More on that later).
  • I won’t be attending the Collaborate session because I’ll be covering the municipal election here in London (aka The Other London). I’ll go in for 4 p.m., hopefully get pizza (a must, despite dwindling newsroom resources, on election night. We might not have pens, notebooks or a future in newsprint, but we will eat free election day pizza, damn it). How do we get people to recognize each other (and each other’s opinions and discourse) as equal? Habermas assumes that it’s possible, but I’m not so sure. What is my role, as the journalist, to cover all campaigns equally? Is it the responsibility to of the media to give every candidate or issue equal space? Who decides who is a front-runner (an opinion poll?) and who is a fringe candidate not worth spilling ink over? It’s interesting how angry some people get if we don’t cover every candidate, but if we covered everyone, we’d have less space for the people who might actually win. I know that puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the journalists and editors in the (mainstream) media, and it’s not one that anyone involved takes lightly. Also interesting are the things we choose to release about ourselves – the hashtag you choose to end your tweet with or the simple act of affixing an “I voted” sticker to your jacket says a lot about you, I think.
  • On a slightly different note, though related to communication theory and PR, I’ve become obsessed in the last 24 hours with the whole Jian Ghomeshi/CBC scandal, on so many different levels. The sequence of how it all went down is so instructional and I’m guessing will be studied in PR courses. First, the fact that, although Gomeshi hired a powerful PR and law firm which put out a bare-bones press release/statement (Sunday afternoon) of his intention to sue the CBC, he used his Facebook page to explain his own side of the story (Sunday evening) before anyone else was able to do so. A brilliant PR move, if nothing else, right? (Maybe those of you in PR will disagree). But here’s how I see it – most people (perhaps those not quite as obsessive about getting all the facts and sequence of events) will see it as a personal letter (“Dear Everyone” his Facebook post begins) to the masses. Much more poignant than any statement someone might release through a PR or law firm (though undoubtedly his FB statement was vetted and revetted, written and rewritten, but both his PR and law firm). What began, on my social media, anyway, as some people sharing his statement, has now turned into people sharing the mainstream media links (CBC, The Star, National Post, Globe and Mail, Huff Post) as well as critical blogs and podcasts, etc. Now it’s turned into, ‘wait, why aren’t we hearing from the women?’ Interesting to see who in my social network is linking to what. What does it say about them? I routinely stop myself from posting links of any kind on my Facebook wall because I’m weary of how people will interpret the source. Are you guys that hyper-aware when you post stuff on personal social media (blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook)?

Now that you all know what I’m thinking about today, let me briefly turn back to Habermas. From the very first reading (Levine’s blog), I understood the Frankfurt School’s dilemma. Why, given all the tools, has there been no revolution? Why did humans turn to totalitarianism instead of rising up? I’ve always tended to think that it’s because we’re born selfish, or at least selfishness is socially constructed in us from birth. Marcuse’s theory of capitalism as a clever ruse to make us think that we have all these needs for which it is providing us choice (Sudersan, 261) really hit home.

I can get behind Habermas to a point, probably more than any of the other theorists we’ve studied. I get that our life-world is being colonized by overarching systems that have come to dominate all areas of our life. I might even agree that society is ultimately redeemable, as Stowe says in her blog. I understand how truth can be empirical and/or normative (Levine). I see communication getting distorted because of power and ideological domination all the time, and I agree that a society free of distorted communication is a noble goal. I just don’t know if an ideal speech situation is possible. (Maybe that’s because we’re still working toward this goal?). I can’t think of a single instance where everyone gets an equal chance to argue and question, where rationality prevails because power doesn’t matter (particularly in the public sphere). I guess I’m not sold on that Utopian ideal, though I don’t know yet if that’s because our life-worlds are still being colonized and will continue to be for a long while yet, or if I even believe that it’s possible to end the colonization.

I like that Habermas’ end goal isn’t victory or defeat of any standpoint, but rather consensual agreement (Sudersan), I just don’t know if that emancipation is possible. I’ve either not seen an example of it (on a micro level), or it hasn’t happened yet. Curious to find out what the discussion leads to tonight. We’ve had a mayoral candidate here in London (the likely winner, if the polls prove correct), who has talked about change and consensus building. He claims to be more concerned with consensus than ideology, to recognize his opponents as equals. Will rational discourse, or ideology, prevail? How do we get people who claim to be concerned about their property taxes, to care about city-building (figuratively, not literally)? Maybe we’re experiencing a mini social-movement here in London. Or maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll all be the same.