Persuasion enhances a democratic society. Philosophically and legally, organizations may try to persuade. In a democratic society, individuals and organizations enjoy the right of free speech that allows them to espouse a point of view, share it in the marketplace of ideas and attempt to influence others to adopt that point of view.
For the public affairs writer, any attempt at persuasion must be based on solid professional standards. If communication becomes misleading, deceptive or manipulative -- by intention or through negligence -- it has moved beyond the legitimate boundaries of persuasion. For some people, persuasion has a tarnished image, because subversive communication techniques have been used to manipulate unknowing or gullible publics. For public affairs writers, however, persuasion is a legitimate, ethical concept because it is not misinformation or propaganda.
Tell the Truth.JP 3-61, p. I-7
Think back to the purpose of the Commander’s Communication Synchronization outlined in JP 3-61 on page ix. The goal may be to maintain or gain public support, but people who receive the messages must be seen as having the freedom not to be persuaded. PA practitioners must respect a person’s right to ignore or reject messages.
If communication is unethical or immoral, it should be called propaganda, not persuasive communication.
- Propaganda is any form of communication misleading in nature designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes or behavior of any group to benefit the sponsor (JP 3-61, 2015).
- If the goal of communication is not to enhance relationships within an open society, then it is self-serving, nonresponsive, and involved in something other than persuasion (Smith, 2012).
As you continue with your PA writing, you will see that good writing requires communication planning that considers what you want to happen as the result of your communication. This is as critical to your decision-making as knowing with whom you are communicating. You need to understand the outcome you want from the message (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
Broadly speaking, there are three possible outcomes of communication
- Knowledge or awareness
- Attitude change
- Behavioral change
Many practitioners use the KAB typology of outcomes to decide the basic purposes of their writing. Be aware, however, that although knowledge, attitude and behavior are interrelated, it is a mistake to assume that merely informing people will automatically lead to their being persuaded and changing their behavior.
The beauty of KAB options is that they are all measurable. With before and after surveys, you can assess whether or not targeted audiences have changed their level of knowledge and awareness, attitude or behavior.
According to Grunig and Hunt (1984), PA writers want readers to do the following:
- Receive the message.
- Remember the message.
- Believe the message.
- Have an intent to act on the message.
- Act on the message.
Achieving desired outcomes gets increasingly difficult as members of the target audience move from receiving to acting. Understanding these theories can improve your chances for success. You may succeed in disseminating messages without a theoretical foundation, but having people act on them requires planning plus a macro-level understanding of behavior and attitude change and a microlevel mastery of writing skills (Treadwell & Treadwell, 2005).
Persuade With the Right Tone
The tone of public affairs writing can range from informative to entertaining, but the goal remains to persuade. Writing should aim to guide and shape opinion; provide information to convert the reader to another point of view; recognize problems and define them, suggest solutions, test them, offer arguments and rebuttals; and call for support.
In order to do this well, you will have to be aware of all sides of an issue and use subject matter experts and research to back up your information in a way that’s not too heavy-handed.
Know your audience members to get their attention and persuade them toward your messaging and desired outcome. You can use facts, emotion or humor to achieve the right tone for your message.
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Persuade With the Right Tone
Joint Publication 3-61 (2015.) Public Affairs
Smith, R. D. (2012). Becoming a Public Relations Writer. New York: Routledge.
Treadwell, D., & Treadwell, J. B. (2005). Public Relations Writing: Principles in Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.