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Rhetoric to the rescue

This is a school of thought that sees PR through a rhetorical prism. We are perhaps more used to hearing rhetoric used as a derogatory term but for theorists such as Robert Heath, PR is about the ethical deployment of rhetoric in a search for shared meaning. It is about a two-way communication of ideas where each side presents their case until mutual understanding is attained. But how best to do this in today’s world?

The rhetorical tradition puts much emphasis on what is called Ethos – or the character of what we would now call the spokesperson. Ron Smith in his book Strategic Planning for Public Relationssuggests that a credible spokesperson should exhibit the three Cs of effective communications: Credibility, Charisma and Control. This is the thinking that guides the selection of the correct spokesperson in a crisis situation. Look for the person who can be seen as being in charge of the situation and who can put things right but who also can demonstrate compassion for the victims.

Rhetorical thinking suggests that it is important to decide how similar to the audience the spokesperson needs to be. Credible speakers should be like the audience – homophily – unless the subject concerns different experiences or expertise in which case they should be disimilar – heterophily.

The rise of the influence of popular YouTubers such as DanTDM and Logan Paul demonstrates the importance of homophily amongst younger audiences. We can also see this thinking at work in the recent elevation of Dana Loesch, an attractive mother of two, as the face of the National Rifle Association in the US as it fights against possible gun controls in the wake of a series of school massacres.

Logos, the second plank of this rhetorical tradition, is according to Smith to use an appeal to reason. As we have seen from the ELM model this would be to take a central route to persuasion which as we have seen above can be difficult with some of today’s audiences. Smith gives some alternative ways to deploy logic and reason.

For example, we may use analogies, using familiar situations that are analogous to the issue we are seeking to highlight. One example of this is the highly successful campaign around the detection of strokes. The campaign uses the analogy of a fire raging through the brain to illustrate how a stroke, if not diagnosed and treated rapidly, can quickly take out successive cognitive abilities such as speech and movement.