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Unexpected PR lessons from the Greek philosophersby Sarah Smith

© AdobeStock / Victoria

We’ve all heard the expression ‘history repeats itself’ and indeed we can learn many things from the past and use retrospection to our advantage, to guide current and future decisions. 

Much of our contemporary understanding ethics, politics, mathematics and the natural sciences, for example, can be attributed to the works of ancient thinkers. The Greek philosophers deeply contemplated and theorised many of life’s big questions, and their ideas have been shaping the way we think, our social systems and institutes and leaders for centuries. Not only have their ideas stood the test of time, they can also be broadly applied across a range of subject matters.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not difficult to apply Greek philosophy to modern communications and public relations (PR) best practice.

So, here are some key PR insights from four of the Greek ‘greats’.
  1. Socrates – Philosopher (circa 470 BCE – 399 BCE)
One of the earlier philosophers, Socrates was a proponent for independent thought—our right to think for ourselves. Opposed to complacency, he believed that we should pursue what we believe in and act in accordance with our personal values.

The analogy for PR centres around authenticity and brand reputation. Businesses that engage audiences with messaging that aligns with their corporate beliefs and values will demonstrate authenticity, which is essential to building trust. In contrast, businesses that present themselves in one particular way, yet conduct themselves in another, will be less trusted and have a weaker brand reputation. 
  1. Plato – Philosopher (circa 428 BCE – 348 BCE)
Plato said, “better a little which is well done, than a great deal imperfect.” True to his word, he delivered his insight without verbosity.

Too many businesses today flood their websites and client-facing collateral with too much content, bombarding audiences with information. These businesses would benefit from heeding Plato’s advice—that ‘less is more’ or ‘quality over quantity’ wins every time.
  1. Aristotle – Philosopher (circa 384 BCE – 322 BCE)
Aristotle is widely credited for laying the foundations of the theory of rhetoric. He studied persuasive communications and contemplated what made some arguments compelling and others not, which culminated in his book Rhetoric. Many teachers of communication, speech and rhetoric still today consider Aristotle’s writing to be the most important single work on persuasion ever written.

Aristotle identified three categories of persuasive discourse: ethos (perceived credibility), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (logical appeal). Successful communication, according to this theory, must appeal to all three categories.

His approach to powerful argument utilises a method of deductive reasoning, uniting speaker with audience through a process of moving from an accepted truth or premise to reach a logical conclusion. By using deductive reasoning—also known as ‘top-down’ logic—speakers have the opportunity to appeal with more ways of thinking, engage with a larger audience and potentially persuade more people.

PR professionals seeking to invoke a particular audience response should consider Aristotle’s ideas on rhetoric. For example, written content can be elevated using deductive reasoning, while the use of one or more truths, or proof points, serves to enhance the credibility of the author. In addition to logos and pathos, content should also embody ethos by appealing to the emotions and passions of the audience.
  1. Plutarch – Biographer (circa 46 AD – 120 AD)
Plutarch was a Greek biographer and essayist who observed that humans are incredibly social creatures who continually model their own behaviour on others. According to Plutarch, the power and influence of role models is tied not only to their achievements but also to their character—either good or bad. Role models that engage with audiences in ways that expose their moral character will better resonate with audiences.

Similarly, today’s audiences are generally more likely to feel connected to people that come across as ‘real’ and genuine. In practical terms, this could mean including a charming anecdote or incidental triviality into an opinion article or speech, thereby breaking down a perceived barrier of formality between communicator and the audience.

The fact that there are lessons to be learnt from ancient texts—dating from circa 400 BCE—highlights how some elements of human communication are timeless and remain relevant today. In planning for the future, therefore, perhaps we should all be looking to the past for inspiration.

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