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The Principle of Authority

“Public Relations is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives.”

For others persuasion is an anathema and it is perceived to be on the slippery slope that skids through publicity and ends up with propaganda.

One of the founding fathers of public relations as an academic subject, James Grunig, argued strongly against persuasion which he sees as being one-way, ‘push’ communications. For Grunig ethical and socially responsible PR can only come out of a two-way ‘symmetrical’ dialogue between the organisation and its stakeholders.

But is he correct? Is it wrong to try to persuade people to stop smoking, eat healthily or buy a certain brand? I know how most of our clients would answer.

As public relations becomes ever more scientific in its practice, especially with the advent of big data and the interest in the links between psychology and communication, it is time to re-evaluate persuasion: how it works and how a study of it can make our practice more effective.

One of the most famous academic models that helps us understand the persuasion process better is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) developed by Petty and Cacioppo in 1986. This model suggests that there are two routes to persuasion – the central and the peripheral. The correct one for the chosen target audience depends on a number of factors such as the audience’s motivation to follow the argument; ability to understand it; and the opportunity to engage.

The central route implies the audience has the motivation, ability and opportunity to carefully evaluate a communication approach based on rational arguments. The peripheral route by contrast suggests a better response can be elicited by the use of cues and symbols.