How do political leaders convince the public about real dangers posed by unknown and invisible threats and then persuade them to follow their guidance, sometimes at short notice? In this post, Augusto Di Miceli (MSc Social and Public Communication, 2020) explores the role & constructs of rhetoric – ethos-logos-pathos – to show how Governments gained citizens’ trust and compliance with Covid-19 lockdown measures.
Covid-19 represents the biggest health, social and economic threat the world has faced for decades and has forced governments across the globe to enact extraordinary and unprecedented policy measures to contain its spread. While efforts to deploy vaccines are underway, rhetoric has proven to be a powerful ally in efforts to gain public confidence and influence behavioural change.
Compliance: a thorn in the side of personal freedom?
The most effective policy measures implemented worldwide to limit the first wave of Covid-19 have included quarantines, mask-wearing, social distancing, and national lockdowns. However, such measures have required high levels of citizens’ compliance. The implementation of these safety rules, besides being difficult and costly to enforce on a national scale, has posed a thorny social and political dilemma for western democracies.
In Italy, for instance, the government has been accused of going against the principles of personal liberty and freedom of movement, consecrated by the constitution, denying citizens the right to ‘fresh air’. In a tweet that received more than six thousand likes, the British journalist Robert Peston defined the UK government’s Coronavirus Bill as a measure that encroached civil liberties and basic human rights, sweeping unchallengeable powers to the state (Bull, 2020). This heavy criticism has forced policymakers to find alternative tools to gain public compliance with their stringent policies.
The art of persuasion
Rhetoric, represents a powerful method, specifically designed more than two-thousand years ago to persuade the public to follow a set of behavioural patterns without coercion.
To be persuasive, rhetoric needs to tap into three elements of what Aristotle called ‘artistic persuasion’: logos, pathos and ethos. In general terms, rhetoric can be defined as ‘the art of persuasion’ or the art of using language in such a way as to impress an audience to persuade them for or against a desired course of action (Aristotle, trans. 1939). Within this description, rhetoric can be broken down further into ‘non-artistic’ and ‘artistic’ means of persuasion. The former relates to persuasion that comes from pre-existing facts, external to the author or speaker such as laws and contracts; and the latter needs effort and flair to be effective. According to Artistotle, ‘artistic proof’ has three core elements: logos (logical proof), pathos (emotional proof) and ethos (ethical proof).
The importance of the combined use of all the three means of persuasion lies in the fact that, as social scientists have convincingly shown, logos, ethos and pathos are complementary since they activate specific sides of the listener’s mind and emotions to varying extents (Ilie, 2006).
How ethos, logos and pathos was used to increase compliance
Findings from my MSc dissertation demonstrate that in the Italian and the UK Prime Ministers’ speeches to their nations, prior to the implementation of nationwide lockdowns, specifically and purposefully used rhetoric to gain people’s confidence in the imminent Covid-19 policies. Both PMs drew on the ancient wisdom of Greek rhetoricians, constantly employing the trio ethos-logos-pathos throughout their speeches.
This communication technique allowed them to clearly explain the crisis, illustrate and justify government policy, gain citizens’ trust and reassure people to engage in collective action and compliance. The table below illustrates the number of times and percentage each PM used these pathways throughout their speeches:
 I am referring to the two speeches delivered by the Italian PM Conte on 8 March 2020 and by the UK PM Johnson on 23 March 2020.
Ethos was employed to convey leadership, trustworthiness, credibility, and reliability of Covid-19 government policies. For example, the Italian PM claimed:
We always acted on the basis of the evaluations provided by the technical-scientific committee, and we always followed a policy of transparency, a policy of truth…
Logos was deployed to defend government interventions by providing reasons to believe the risks posed by the Covid-19, give instructions, and persuade citizens of the effectiveness of the suggested coping responses. As the UK PM stated:
It is vital to slow down the spread of the disease. Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time so we can protect the NHS ability to cope and save more lives.… and that is why we have been asking people to stay at home during this pandemic.
Pathos was used to instil strength, courage, and determination but also hope, optimism, and togetherness. The Italian PM, Conte, affirmed:
…we are a strong country. A country that does not give up, this is in our DNA.
Self-reported levels of lockdown compliance, collected between March and April 2020, showed that both in Italy and in the UK there has been widespread public compliance with Covid-19 policy measures, with the police rarely having to intervene (Jackson et al., 2020). Whilst many other factors might have influenced citizens’ compliance with government safety measures, rhetoric played a key role in allowing political leaders to communicate effectively with their citizens. As such, rhetoric is an essential tool in health-related crisis communications and plays an effective role in triggering large-scale behavioural changes.
The combined use of the trio ethos-logos-pathos allowed communicators to explain the crisis, illustrate and justify government policy, gain citizens’ trust and compliance, and unite people to engage in collective action for the greater good of all.
- The views expressed here are of the author and not of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.
- Featured photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash
Aristotle (1939). The “Art” of rhetoric: With an English translation by John Henry Freese [translated by J. H. Freese]. Harvard University Press.
Bull, M. J. (2020). Beating Covid-19: the problem with national lockdowns [Blog Post]. Retrieved, December 2020, from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2020/03/26/beating-covid-19-the-problem-with-national-lockdowns/.
Ilie, C. (2006). Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Rhetoric, Classical. Elsevier Science.
Jackson, J., Posch, C., Bradford, B., Hobson, Z., Kyprianides, A. & Yesberg J. (2020, April 27). The lockdown and social norms: why the UK is complying by consent rather than compulsion. LSE BPP. Retrieved, July 2020, from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/lockdown-social-norms/.