Strategy helps us to identify the approaches to take in researching, planning and carrying out activities in order to obtain the best results. It also determines the most effective manner to communicate with an organization’s stakeholders. Strategies are guidelines consisting of planned actions and program components. Public relations practitioners have to analyze situations and conceptualize appropriate strategies to better the organization’s public relations position in the eyes of its stakeholders.
In order to identify the appropriate strategy to use, public relations practitioners fall back on the four key theories of public relations – discourse, rhetorical, ethical and critical. These theories help in defining the public relations plan and strategy by assisting in evaluating, examining, planning and performing public relations activities such as gaining publicity, providing entertainment, disseminating information and developing national public information campaigns. Depending on the outcome the organization hopes to achieve and its current circumstances, professionals would seek to apply the most appropriate theory applicable to their situation.
Rhetoric is defined as the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. (Online Oxford Dictionaries, 2012) Rhetorical theory, examines the various methods in which language, signs or symbols are carefully selected and organized by the practitioner to produce persuasive and meaningful messages in order to better the organization’s position in the eyes of its publics. (Toth, 1992) The practitioner uses persuasion to soften hostile opinions during crisis management; reinforce latent opinions and positive attitudes and behaviors as well as maintain such favorable opinions. (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2011) This approach explores and analyses the effects of those texts on different groups of people to achieve the most ideal results. There are three main types of rhetoric – ethos, pathos and logos.
Ethos, also known as ethical appeal, focuses on the credibility of the source of information such as trustworthiness and character of the speaker or writer. Therefore, it is necessary for speakers and writers to be consistent with their messages, show integrity and also be experts in the field that are talking about. In addition, different media channels also affect the ethos of a message. For example, broadsheet papers are generally viewed as more credible source of information than tabloids as tabloids tend to be more irreverent and “slangy” in their writing styles compared to the more serious broadsheets. Pathos is associated with persuading by appealing to the senses and emotions of their target audience. The message aims to invoke emotions by appealing to the imagination and sympathies of people. In order for an organization to use pathos in its communications, it must first consider its target audience in order to appeal to their interest.
Furthermore, audience participation also evokes a sense of emotional appeal as it allows the target market to actualize their beliefs through participation and engagement. Logos is the art of persuasion through structured and logical reasoning. Logos uses logical appeal to persuade its audiences with suitable arguments to support its claim. In public relations, the consistency and clarity of the message to its intended audience are the most persuasive. In current times, we have moved beyond texts to visuals. As such, visual rhetoric also plays an important role in public relations as a picture speaks a thousand words. Visuals when used with texts and messages are most effective when they deliver a consistent message.
Analysis of the use of rhetoric by FEMEN
FEMEN is a Ukrainian social activist group; founded in 2008 by Anna Hutsol and it comprises of mainly female university students. Their main objective is to draw awareness to sexual discrimination and the sex industry in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and to fight for female rights and power. In recent times, they have also voiced their intent to challenge for a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament which is dominated by men. The organization is well-known for their usage of rhetorical strategies through their public relations activities to achieve their objectives, although those methods have been assessed by some critics as backfiring and deviating from the group’s initial intentions. We will analyze FEMEN’s public relations activities from the three aspects of rhetorical theory and evaluate their success.
FEMEN has been successful in drawing media and global attention to the state of female affairs in Eastern Europe through the use of pathos. The group is known for protesting topless in freezing conditions. The girls who often frontline these protests are attractive, slim, blonde women and they often use very controversial and strong language painted on placards or their bare skin to attract media attention. The image of a group of attractive, young ladies protesting creates a strong visual rhetoric which immediately makes the general public sit up in interest to watch. In some protests, they re-enact provocative scenes just to gain attention. For example, when they were protesting against sexual harassment by university lecturers, the group members are seen posing in scantily clad uniforms in a variety of compromising positions against male participants who were acting as university lecturers. In addition, in street protests, the young ladies can be seen gesturing to the general public to come forth and join them in the protest.
They are relying on the PR tool of “public participation” so that their target audience can feel emotionally connected to their cause when they join the protest. At the same time, the visual impact of fragile and lithe ladies facing off against stoic and burly security officers and being shoved into police vehicles also conveys a strong rhetoric by appealing to the sympathetic audience and also indirectly drives home the message of gender inequality in Ukraine. (Zychowicz, 2011) The organization also has a keen understanding of their target audience – men and people of power. They are deliberately targeting the male gaze by appealing to the natural instinct of heterogeneous attraction through the use of topless attractive young ladies to deliver the message.
The message written is also rhetoric. Strong words such as “Ukraine is not a brothel” and “Death for Sadist” immediately conveys a shocking and jarring appeal to the general public. During the protests, the young ladies often shout at the top of their voices, similar to that of a war cry, to arouse passion for their cause and aggression against the people in power in their audience. Lastly, FEMEN often timed their protests with significant events to garner more emotional appeal. For example, FEMEN deliberately timed one of their protests against domestic violence in Turkey on Women’s Day so as to make their message more salient and persuasive.
The group’s key objective is to fight for female rights. The group relies on young, freshly educated women from Ukraine to bring across the credibility of their intended message. These young ladies have seen their share of female discrimination during their growing up years and many are speaking from personal experience which makes the message believable and trustworthy. Anna Hutsol, the leader of FEMEN, has a background in marketing and a degree in economics.
This gives her the media savvy to broadcast social issues with reclusive Ukraine to the world. In addition, because of her education, the message of the group seems more credible. However, critics have argued that while Anna is educated, she does not have a background in feminist studies, history and cultural issues. She seems to overlook the reality of women suppression on the ground, but rather focus on theatrics to garner media attention. In that sense, many critics believe that FEMEN’s objectives seems be more of a publicity stunt, rather than actually fighting for the cause of women in Ukraine. (Zychowicz, 2011)
While the group’s intended rhetoric is to fight sexual discrimination, the actions of strutting down the street topless and re-enacting offensive scenes to garner attention seems to suggest otherwise. The message written on placards seems to contradict the sexual imagery conjured by bare breasts and provocative “stagings” which confuses the audience. For example, while protesting against sex tourism, by appearing topless in the international media, the group is attracting more curious men to Ukraine who are probably charmed more by their physical appearances than moved by their message.
The key theories are the pillars for strategy making in public relations activities. Studying the rhetorical theory has helped with my understanding in the usage of ethos, pathos and logos for persuading an organization’s target audience to achieve its goals and objectives, by shaping the beliefs and establishing norms for its intended audience.While rhetoric is widely used in public relations as persuasion is one of the key techniques to appeal the organization to its stakeholders, there are also limits to the effectiveness of the rhetorical theory. Ineffective use of logos, ethos and pathos can create conflicting messages which confuse the target audience.
According to rhetorical scholars Cheney and Dionisopoulos, “Corporate communications must be self-conscious about its role in the organizational process (which is fundamentally rhetorical and symbolic).” (Cheney & Dionisopoulos, 1989). A lack of understanding of the audience could result in an incorrect interpretation of the intended message. People tend to be difficult to persuade as they are selective of the messages they wish to receive and those messages usually reinforces their current self-belief rather than change their belief. (1500 words excluding headers and in text references)
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