The Virtue of Obscurity in Public Relations

Term Paper
by Tongchan ‘TC’ Boonyapataro
John Carroll University
CO550 Development of Communication Theory  (Fall 2010)

            Students in a Midwestern university complained of difficulties in understanding scholarly peer review articles in a Spring 2010 research class . They were replied that academics despise clarity. This statement might be in jest, but, in fact,a number of scholars and philosophers accept the utility of obscure writings in written and verbal communications. This paper explores various viewpoints on the utility of obscurity in communications, from antiquity to present days, and from the context of political agenda to commercial settings. Related terms such as ambiguity and polysemy will be discussed.

The key objective is to explore strategic uses of intended obscurity in communication. The paper argues that obscure communication has utility in public relations, and specifically that it can be effective when the audience is diverse and when symbols can be assigned diverse meanings.

The theory draws support from classic and contemporary work in communications theory and from references to selected case studies. This paper discusses obscurity appearing in prose only and excludes embellished languages found in poetry and visual or graphic communications such as abstract paintings.


Generally, clarity is regarded as an asset to effective communication. Calderonello (2009) defines clarity as “without obscurity, vagueness, or ambiguity.” Whether the purpose of communication is to teach, to please or to inform, several discourse scholars always recommend messages to be precise and clear. In antiquity, Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian were all in the favor of clarity and simplicity (Calderonello, 2009). George Campbell (1823) endorses the idea by devoting a chapter in his book, “The Philosophy of Rhetoric,” praising the clarity, or in his word, “perspicuity.” in communication. Campbell noted that perspicuity is the ‘art of talent’, which produces the effect that speakers intend to cast on audiences. Meanwhile, he denounced obscurity by naming it ‘the opposite quality’ of the perfection of eloquence and associating such trait with deception and untruthfulness.

Despite the fact that eloquence is believed to bring in full comprehension and effective communication, many scholars argued that obscurity has its own virtue in a variety of contexts. Despite its potential defects, some Christian scholars refer to obscurity as a means to reach for the Grace of God. In addition, some philosophers support the use of obscurity as an approach to create harmony in community. In certain situations, obscurity leads to inclusion and some marketers make use of such opportunities to reach wider target audience.

A doubter might argue that if a message is unclear it may not be understood at all. Communication is a combination of verbal, or mediated, and nonverbal, or unmediated, communication. Nonverbal communication includes body language such as hand gesture and tone of voice. In his book, Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian (1971) discovers that audiences usually gives only 7% of the weight to the verbal component, and the rest goes to tone of voice and facial cues. The study proved that the function of words play minor rules in communication.

To further support the possibility of understanding obscure language, let’s look at a clinical story, written by neurologist Oliver Sacks (2008) in his book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” His story, titled, “The President’s Speech”, features an incident of aphasic patients, who suffer from an inability to understand or use language, yet are sensitive to body language and tone of voices. Surprisingly, these patients were able to laugh with jokes in a president’s speech. Sacks clarifies that even though his patients do not understand a single word in the speech, they are receptive to an “utterance —an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being… more than mere word-recognition.” In short, the president’s speech does not create desired effects on these aphasic patients through his choice of words, but through his intonations and movements.

Divine Power behind Obscurity

Origen. Noticeably, the Scriptures are generally written in an obscure language filled with allegories, which require skilled interpretation. Consequently, common people need religious expertise from preachers or priests to provide them with allegorical clarifications for complete comprehension. Antiquity scholars suggested that obscure language in the Scriptures has its rationale. Origen, a Christian philosopher, admits that “[in the Bible] there were many things… that could not possibly be interpreted literally.” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 158-159) and suggests that those writings are intentionally obscure to alert attention of faithful followers and to encourage mediation. Origen accepts that different meanings can be derived from a text, and might lead to possible misinterpretation. In conclusion, he proposes that readers should not be concerned about words and language, but should focus on the meanings of words.

St. Augustine of Hippo. Another advocate of the obscurity value in the Scriptures is St. Augustine of Hippo. In his work, “On Christian Learning”, he states that the apprehension of the Scriptures could only be brought by the divine assistance to the preachers. (Kennedy, 2009) He also asserts in his work, “The City of God” that obscurity “…is beneficial, whether the sense of the author is at last reached after the discussion of many other interpretations, or whether, though that sense remain concealed, other truths are brought out by the discussion of the obscurity.” The difficulties in understanding the words of God are intentionally inserted to inspire thoughts and generate discussion. By putting the efforts in discovering the true meanings of the text, followers will be rewarded by ecclesiastical pleasure.

            Byzantine period. Thinkers in the Byzantine period adopted the idea that obscurity has benefits. John Geometres, an 11th-century-thinker, suggests that obscurity might not always be a foe, but could be a friend in some instances (Kennedy, 2009.) Geometres concurs with St. Augustine that even though obscurities found in the writings of the Church and of Greek philosophers may give commoners hard times in appreciating the wisdom, the hard work of learning will eventually pay off once readers reach the hidden meanings. In addition, obscurity also protects controversial ideas that might be too dangerous to declare to the public and harbors them securely by conveying to only those who shared similar points of view.

Obscurity as resource. Kenneth Burke (1945) wrote suggestively about the resourcefulness of ambiguity in his book, “A Grammar of Motives.” He sees ambiguity as a gain instead of a loss and writes, “Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (Burke, 1945.) Ambiguity can be useful and resourceful because of its flexibility, which can freely generate unlimited ways of interpretations. Burke (1945, p. xiii) introduces the concept of mind-molder and compares meanings to “an epistemological liquidity” merged in an “alchemic center” in which ideas are generated, transformed, remade and became a different distinction.

Weaver and obscurity in political contexts.  Richard Weaver (1953) examined the rhetoric of America’s 19th century orators in his essay, “The Ethics of Rhetoric.” In a chapter titled, “The Spaciousness of Old Rhetoric,” he observed a style of generality or vagueness, which he terms, “spaciousness”, which is a “broad impression, which requires its own analysis… between the speech itself and the things it is meant to signify something stands … but something is there to prevent immediate realizations and references.” He asserts that obscure language possibly works best in political contexts. Through this generalized style, speakers manage to meet audiences’ expectation because speakers identify themselves with the audience and both of them held similar assumptions. Speakers and audience share the same attitude such as “Freedom and morality were constant.  The Constitution was the codification of all that was politically feasible; Christianity of all that was morally authorized. Rome stood as an exemplum of what may happen to nations.” Weaver cites President Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg and points out that what Lincoln delivered in the speech was so generic that it is almost impossible to prove whether it was sided with the North or the South. Weaver concludes that “Lincoln’s faculty of transcending an occasion is in fact only this ability to view it from the right distance, or to be wisely generic about it.”

Draw conclusions advertisements. The key concept of displaying vague messages in order for audience to find its own meanings still remains in the agenda of contemporary advertising, where advertisers suggested it is best to let audience draw its own conclusion from advertising messages. Engel and Blackwell (1982, p. 476) commend the utility of implicitness in an advertisement by citing a type of advertisements called “cool commercials”, which was broadcasted during the 1980’s. Its content was unstructured, with pieces of stories putting together vaguely. Viewers were expected to make sense of the ads and draw their own conclusions. Engel and Blackwell report that these cool commercials are effective because they pose questions and encourage audiences to make their own conclusions. In some instances, obscurity can be used to avoid commitment and prevent producers from facing legal obligations. Robert J. Thornton discovers a unique way of exploiting obscure language. In his book, “L.I.A.R” or Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations,” Thornton (2003) collects hundreds of phrases containing double meanings, and especially serving best for writing recommendation letters. These obscure messages are arbitrarily interpreted and help protect recommenders from being sued by recommendees in case those recommendees find the content slandering. Suggested useful sentences include “a man like him is hard to find.” (perhaps, because he never shows up in class.), “a man of many convictions” (because he has a long list of criminal records.) or “he is always behind his fellow employees.”(because he is the slowest worker.)


Another aspect of obscurity that has been widely discussed by discourse scholars is ambiguity. Ambiguity is a type of obscurity which is associated with lack of clear meaning because they are poorly constructed. (Lietch and Davenport, 2009). In Language and Mind, a renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky (2006) stated that ambiguity could only pose a problem for syntax or sentence structure. Yet, in terms of meanings, ambiguity is arbitrary. A meaning of a speech or a sentence is contextually dependent. A person could find it ambiguous, while others might not. In short, ambiguity is in the eyes of the beholder.

Even though ambiguity might be regarded as a tendency to create misunderstanding, several scholars argue and assert that, if deployed creatively and strategically, ambiguity has its own advantages.

Strategic ambiguity. Eisenberg (1984) see the virtue of ambiguity and affirm that, in conflicting situations, organizations could strategically use it to encourage new ideas and keep their options open. However, Eisenberg does not completely withdraw the value of clarity, he suggests that clarity only guarantees an effective communication as long as the ‘goal is to be clear’.

Eisenberg adopts Kenneth Burke’s proposition and commends that intended ambiguity is valuable because it encourages freedom of viewpoints and does not limit the scope of interpretations. Moreover, ambiguity can specially be helpful during period of abrupt changes or uncertainty in organizations. Eisenberg (1984) terms this type of communication ‘strategic ambiguity’ where “language was intentionally deployed in ambiguous ways in order to accomplish organizational goals.” Strategic ambiguity occurs in a situation where divergent meanings are paradoxically placed in the same text. Since message receivers interpret meanings in whichever way they are in sympathy with, unified diversity is stimulated, and, indirectly fosters agreement among group members.

Strategic ambiguity is also appropriate for addressing difficult issues, improving interpersonal relations, and solving conflicts among members in organizations. Its vagueness helps divert people’s attention from specific points of conflicts to abstract concepts that they agree. (Williams, 1976, p. 17). Strategic ambiguity also allows “various constituencies to claim victory” (Eisenberg, 1984, p. 423, Goss & Williams, 1973, p. 166).

Intended obscurity in advertising agenda. Despite the fact that unclear promotional messages often lead to consumers’ misunderstanding and confusion and causes negative word of mouth, decision postponement, decreased trust and dissatisfaction (Wash and Mitchell, 2008), marketers managed to turn these difficulties into opportunities.

Puntoni, Schroedera and Ritson (2008) commend the utility of advertising polysemy in creating desired effects among target audience. Polysemy occurs when viewers can derive different meanings from the same set of information portrayed in a single text (Fawkes, 2001.) Polysemy takes place in advertisements when there exist at least two distinct interpretations for the same advertising message across audiences, or across time and situations. (Puntoni, Schroedera and Ritson, 2008)

Wash and Mitchell (2008) propose that purposeful polysemy helps achieve at least four goals of communication. Firstly, it helps appeal to more than just one group of audiences with the same message, thus creating persuasive effects in various demographic groups. Secondly, it communicates with various target customers about product or service information in an effective way. For example, with its modern design, Toyota Scion wants to attract Generation X and also baby boomers, who still want to feel young. Thirdly, purposeful polysemy increases the aesthetic appeal of a message, such as through the use of a pun. Lastly, it achieves promotion of a controversial message without breaking social norms or standards of appropriateness. An example includes “The Contest”, Seinfeld’s the Emmy-award winning episode, in which masturbation is described as “treating yourself like an amusement park” and an abstinence from masturbation is termed being the “Master of Your Domain.”

Practices of Strategic Ambiguity

U.S.-Sino Relations. Strategic ambiguity contributes greatly in the U.S. foreign policy. The concept was initiated during the Eisenhower administration in coping with the 1954 Quemoy crisis. The U.S. government purposefully used ambiguous communication to obscure its involvement with political conflicts between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. This strategic ambiguity apparently prevented China from attacking Taiwan, while discouraging Taiwan from declaring independence from mainland China.  (Keith, 2001)

Ambiguity in electoral campaigns. Aragones and Neeman (2000) observe that many political candidates always express themselves in vague and ambiguous terms, despite the fact that voters dislike ambiguity. However, the candidates intentionally declare their platforms ambiguously so that different voters may interpret them as different policy proposals. However, they also implied that audiences do not accept all politicians who communicate vaguely. Only those who possess uniqueness in their ideology can afford to be more ambiguous.

Ambiguity in the media: Fox News’s “some people”. Fox News is criticized by media critics for its quote of ‘some people’ to add creditability in their news reporting. According to a documentary, “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” (2004), the network always inserts trustworthiness in their news stories by referring to anonymous source as “some people say”, “some say” or “a couple people say.” Peter Hart, Media Analyst for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) criticizes that “journalistically it’s a very peculiar technique because the idea behind journalism is that you’re sourcing who you’re referring to.” Apparently, these ambiguous and unknown “some people” have endorsed Fox News’ reports from opinions on gay marriage to midterm elections platforms.

Proposed Theory: Obscurity in Public Relations

So far we have learned that the use of obscurity is mainly associated with molding of meanings, rather than fixing on words or languages.Various professionals have discovered the benefits of obscure communication in the context of political, marketing and advertising. This paper argues that obscure communication also has utility in public relations, and specifically that it can be effective when the audience is diverse and when symbols can be assigned diverse meanings.

Obscure communication in public relations could be regarded ‘spinning’ or ‘deframing,’ which occurs when a public relations practitioner attempts to present a situation in the most admiring and favorable angle. As Lee (2008) notes in his conference paper, titled “Strategic Ambiguity, Reframing, and Spin: The Social Impact of Language”, spin can occur by creatively exploiting ambiguity. Consequently, realities can be presented in an angle or through symbols to instigate a particular effect, aspiration or motive. Two of the notorious spins in the 20th century was the incident where smoking habits were spinned by public relations practitioners in a way that it was acceptable for women to smoke and the way consumers’ attitude was reframed to regard beer as the ‘beverage of moderation.’ (Stauber and Rampton, 1999)

Utility of Obscure Communication. In the realm of public relations, in which the ultimate goal is defined as “to establish and maintain good will and understanding between the organization and its public.”(Fawkes, 2001), obscure language can be creatively employed to achieve its strategic objectives as well. Followings are the possible benefits of obscurity in public relations.

Deniability. Timeliness is a key action item during a crisis communication. A public relations practitioner is always obliged to respond immediately following an unpleasant incident. Notably, Goodman (2010) asserts that in times of crisis conflicting agendas between public relations practitioners and lawyers often arise. In such situation, practitioners aim to tone down negative responses from the public with expression of condolences, whereas lawyers alerts that such concerns could imply acceptance of guilt and are followed by lawsuits.

Deniability is one of the characteristic of strategic ambiguity which is helpful when communicator wishes to delay conflicts, “preserve future options”, or even “testing reactions to ideas.” (Eisenberg, 1984) In August 2010, JetBlue Airline’s reaction on its flight attendant’s offensive action proved that obscurity is helpful in this case. Within 48 hours, the airline made absolutely no comment regarding Steven Slater, its flight attendant, who used foul languages with passengers and jumped off the airplane through the cabin’s emergency exit. (Elliot, 2010) Silence, which serves to obscure reaction in this case, have been deployed because the company is overwhelmed with the tremendous sympathy toward the flight attendant expressed in the U.S. online community, and may want to prolong the situation until the hype fades out of the tabloid media.

Inclusion. Obscure language can be used to unify diversity among conflicting parties and promote inclusion. As Richard Weaver remarks, specificity is associated with exclusion, and generalization leads to inclusion. Statements with vague messages could match more than interests of more than one group of audience. Eisenberg (1984) also supports that, by strategically putting different vague ideas next to one another in obscure speech or generalized remarks, speakers could unify audiences as one, even though they come from different backgrounds with different beliefs and attitudes.

Effectiveness of Obscurity

Based on the research of this study, below are proposed factors of how obscurity could be effectively deployed in public relations campaigns in order to create mutual understanding between audiences and stakeholders.

Diversity of Minds.  Obscure language works best when audiences are diverse provided that speakers fully understand each and every audience’s state of mind. The more speaker knows about audience’ current emotions, the better he or she can convince them. Edward Bernays, who is regarded as the father of spin, also provided insight in a strategic manipulative intent that “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it,” (Bernays, 1928)

Understanding the audience is always a rule of thumb for a good communicator since the Fourth century B.C.E. when Aristotle introduced this rule of ‘pathos’ or the appeal to audiences’ emotions. He stresses that an effective speaker must be aware of listeners’ current state of mind; what fears them, what pleases them, for instance.

Use of Symbols.  Symbols can be interpreted in many different ways depending on backgrounds and mindsets of audience. They can be a form of comparison, metaphor or simile. Obscurity is effectively presented in public relations through proper symbols. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, regards the symbol as the most powerful psychological tool for reaching and persuading public. Audiences make better sense of the world through symbols than through words or texts. Symbols lead to unlimited interpretations. Bernays then asserts that “public relations practitioners must be an expert in the meaning of serviceability of the symbols and it is vital that they should utilize the appeals to instigate desires and instincts.” (Ewen, 1996)

In conclusion, obscurity can be useful in public relations context when it serves in a sense of deniability, or is used to promote inclusion. It works best when the audience is diverse and when symbols can be assigned diverse meanings.

Further Study: Ethical Implication

Despite its utility, strategically obscure communication is likely to be associated with deception and sham. Recent survey by shows that the U.S. credit card companies might attempt to take advantage of consumers by writing their agreements on the average of 12th-grade-reading-level, whereas the American adults reading level is just 9th-grade (Prater, 2010.) In addition, Clampitt (1991) also suggested its utility for avoiding commitment or responsibility, while  Eisenberg and Goodall (1993) noted that strategic ambiguity is used for deterrence and getting away from blame.

Ambiguity in public relations also receives negative connotation. Spin is always regarded as harmful and destructive due to its method of “polishing the truth” (Safire, 1996) or misrepresenting the reality. Edward Bernays has always been attacked by public relations critics for his tobacco campaign which changed the attitude of smoking women.

Future studies should look into ethical issues of the obscurity in public relations and find its legitimate causes. Even though, it has been defined as unclear and implicit communication, is it necessary to be expanded to a meaning of lie? What if obscure communication is used to make love, not war or even prevent riots, would that still be considered as a wrongful act?


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