In grad school, I studied Attitude Theory under Dr. Hamilton at Pittsburg State University‘s Communication Department. Below is the second part of my response to a final question about persuasion and human attitude theory.
Click here to read Part One
Let’s return to the persuasion techniques suggested by the literature. First, consider rational arguments. By appealing to the rational mind of the reader, the editor is able to suggest reasons for thinking a certain way and therefore argue why the reader should accept the new viewpoint or take a suggested action. Secondly, consider assertiveness. Using an assertive approach, the editor can tell the readers why they need to take on the new mindset or action. Often this assertive approach uses fear or dislike within the reader to bolster the arguments.
For example: An editor writing against a proposed nuclear power plant in the area could use assertive statements like, “The threat of nuclear contamination would be playing in our own backyards.” This statement could prey upon fears the reader may already be experiencing. However, for the highly involved readers who think this would not be a threat or have been convinced that the plant is highly beneficial for economic reasons, such arguments could cause them to swing to the rational argument that the assertive fear-inducing argument of the editor is simply not reasonable. Therefore, they might conclude, the editor himself is not a credible source for information.
Another technique is exchange. While related to assertiveness, exchange focuses more on providing direction for the reasoning or concerns of the reader Exchange techniques in editorials help readers see the problem or argument at hand while immediately suggesting an outcome that relieves those fears or provides an outcome that answers the concerns of the reader while directing them toward the editors viewpoint.
In light of the techniques suggested by the literature, consider the steps that scholars Zimbardo and Lieppe suggest for persuasion. These same steps would apply to developing an editorial campaign:
First, the literature calls for exposure to the message. Without exposure to the message, obviously, the receiver could not consider it’s content. The editorial campaign must expose the readers to the concepts it is trying to convey.
Secondly, the editor must get the reader to pay attention to that message. This is more than a catchy headline. Attention is attained when the reader diverts his attention to the message and not merely the form in which the message is presented.
The third step is comprehension. If the reader does not comprehend or understand the message they are very likely not to pay attention very long and their exposure to the message soon is eliminated as well. One factor contributing to comprehension involves knowing the audience that will be exposed to the message. The better the editor prepares the message the more likely it will have a chance at being comprehended by readers.
After the message has been comprehended, the reader is at a transition point. If the attempt at persuasion is successful, the reader will accept the message and quickly move to the next point of retaining the attitudes presented.
As this process is completed, the persuaded reader will take on the new attitude or mindset and either maintain it within themselves, promote it with others and therefore reinforcing the message in their own minds, become moved to action, or face new influences in the form of arguments against the new attitude and become dissuaded from their position.
This step-by-step theoretical process presented by Zimbardo and Lieppe along with an understanding of the techniques of rational appeal, assertiveness, and exchange and when to use them are helpful in preparing an editor for embarking on a potentially influential editorial campaign.
Considering the editorials that I have read or written, there are several thatI would consider successful though I will qualify this success. I once wrote an editorial entitled “Would the real teachers please stand” after experience a unsuccessful interview with a group of teachers who expressed fear about confronting the U.S.D. 234 school board over salary contracts or even putting their own names to their concerns. While the responses I received were positive and the teachers did eventually “stand up” for what they were pursuing salary wise. I consider this editorial successful not because I am proud enough to believe that my writing skills and persuasive words were the sole cause for teachers to take action. I consider this editorial successful because I got my message –– teachers are scared and here’s why — out to the public in a manner that would not have been possible on the news pages of the paper. In part my purpose was also to publicly tell the teachers they needed to get some backbone and believe in themselves if they really felt so strongly about what they told me, so I was glad to see them respond but I am cautious to attribute their actions solely to my editorial influence.
While I cannot think of an example of an unsuccessful editorial off hand, I would describe an unsuccessful editorial as an editorial that readers consider irrelevant because of faulty arguments or because the editor fails to gain enough attention to maintain enough of the audience to receive a response. One thing to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of an audience is to consider whether the editor’s purpose was fulfilled. As I learned in my study, editorials may have many different purposes (i.e. incite response, cause attitude changes, incite action, inform, etc.). With a variety of purposes, anyone evaluating editorials needs to understand the purpose of the editorials as individuals before those editorials can be properly and accurately evaluated as successful or not.