Shaping Opinion Through Persuasion

Article 6 min
Persuasion is a process of communication that intends to influence people using ethical means that enhances a democratic society (Smith, 2012). Public affairs writers must only use the truth to persuade. See the methods public affairs writers use to inform, persuade and engage the public.

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 that is misleading in nature and 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).

Identify Outcomes

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

  1. Knowledge or awareness
  2. Attitude change
  3. 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:

  1. Receive the message.
  2. Remember the message.
  3. Believe the message.
  4. Have an intent to act on the message.
  5. 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 of 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

Persuade withFacts

PA writing can persuade with facts that inform, explain, give background information, tell what an issue is about and give credit for a job well done. It can let readers know what has occurred, why and how it happened and what effect this will have on them personally.

Informative editorials offer writers their greatest opportunity for service and influence because readers always want to be informed about problems in which they are interested but which they cannot readily solve. It is your job to explain the issue and how it will affect them in easy-to-understand terms.

Facts In Action

"Fighting Our Nation's Wars: one 50LB Round at a time" presents a layered set of facts in a crisp, concise and easily understandable way.

“'One Abrams tank has more firepower than an entire squad of infantrymen,' said Capt. Jason Tucker, commander of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

As a part of an integrated approach to warfare, Abrams tanks, along with well-armed, well-trained tank crews, are a valuable asset to the United States Army as a fighting force."

Persuade withEmotion

Persuading with emotion allows you to connect with your audience members by appealing to their feelings about a subject. This, in turn, makes them more receptive to your message.

Emotional appeals use simple and meaningful language to connect the reader to an idea.

Emotion in Action

"Fort Hood Medics Demonstrate Toughness, Earn Excellence" sets up the tone in just a few sentences.

"It was 4:30 a.m. Even the sun was still tucked away when 65 weary bodies began a grueling trek of 12 miles or 19.3 kilometers, or 63,360 feet, or 760,320 inches – tough no matter how you measure it.

'Across the board, usually we have on average about 300 candidates,' Dame said. 'Probably about 240, if not more, fail out. It’s a high failure rate because it’s attention to detail.'"

You may also persuade through emotional tone, built-in pauses and emotional metaphors, as this article, titled "Steadfast and Loyal: Vietnam Veteran Supports Carson Community For Over 30 Years," has.

"The year was 1958. The day was August 25. The Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, was among the most popular movies in theaters. The president was Dwight D. Eisenhower. The average home cost $10,450, and the average income was $4,650. A loaf of bread was 19 cents, and a gallon of gas was 24 cents.

. . . and Roy Wright had just raised his right hand and sworn to defend this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Persuade withHumor

In the right situation, you can persuade through humor. PA writing that entertains and expresses a particular point of view using humor, satire, dialogue, puns and anecdotes give a change of pace.

The beauty of using humor is that it can get the point across in a way stuffy writing cannot. Humor will reach readers who just won’t plod through three-quarters of a column on the latest from Afghanistan.

Humor in Action

Notice how the Marine Corps uses a familiar ritual (daylight saving time) and rhyme to reinforce a uniform requirement via their Twitter account.

"SLEEVES DOWN! Hey Marines, what goes up must come down. It's time to roll those sleeves down."

Earlier in the year, they posted this reminder with a light-hearted video:

"Don't forget Marines, as the heat goes up, the sleeves go up!"


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.

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