Strategic Comms #36: A Framework for Assessing Communications Motives

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(This is the 36th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

How would you assess the motives of a speaker or, for that matter, any act of communication?  For example, how would you evaluate the motives of politicians caught in scandals or even celebrities who testify before Congressional hearings?

Kenneth Burke, the noted theorist who developed the theory of Dramatism, created a framework for analyzing communication motives.  Burke’s theory compares life to a play and, like a theatrical piece, requires an act, scene, agent, agency and purpose.  The act is defined as what is done by a person or persons.  The scene is the context surrounding the act.  The agent is the person or persons performing the act.  Agency is the means used to accomplish the act, including message strategies, etc.  And purpose refers to the goal of the act.  Burke used a pentad to graphically represent each of these points.  He later added attitude as a sixth point to refer to how an actor positions himself or herself relative to others.  The pentad is depicted in Exhibit 1 below.

After identifying and defining all of the elements for a given interaction, an analyst can use dramatistic ratios to determine the relative dominance of each element.  For instance, professors Christopher R. Darr and Harry C. Strine IV used pentadic analysis to evaluate the motive of celebrities who testified before Congressional hearings.  Contrary to the existing literature which suggested that celebrities were simply the pawns of publicity-seeking politicians, the authors found that the celebrities were primarily motivated by “giving voice to the voiceless.”  That is, by analyzing the rhetoric of the celebrities and using agent-act and scene-act ratios, they found that celebrities’ actions were motivated by their personal experience, rather than their celebrity status, and the circumstances surrounding the issue, such as giving a voice to others.

Burke’s theory is incredibly complex and argues that guilt and variations thereof are the primary motives for all communication.  As a result, the theory has been criticized for its broad reach and perhaps cultural limitations due to its decidedly Western Christian orientation.

Nonetheless, pentadic analysis offers a useful framework for assessing communication motives in any situation.  For instance, in regard to land use, it could be a useful tool in evaluating the motives of your project’s detractors.  That is, do they represent narrow self-interests or the broader community?  Are they pawns for politicians or are their concerns legitimate?  Moreover, Dramatism has been widely embraced and utilized, and Burke is considered a giant in the field of communication.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz

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