Passion for the People

Maria Isaksson

Norwegian municipalities need to develop enthusiasm and identification to connect with citizens on their websites. Six tips to succeed.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Rhetoric in practice

Norwegian municipalities will experience significant identity change imposed by the anticipated reform of municipal government. What can they learn from pathos rhetoric?

Pathos stands for emotions in classical rhetoric (Aristotle 1991). Appeals to emotions play a vital part in persuasion, in everyday discourse (Smith & Hyde 1991) and in organizational rhetoric (Hoffman & Ford 2010).

Today, communication professionals practice what every rhetorician has always known: a message meant to move, engage and commit must appeal to people’s emotions, in particular in times of crises and change (Svennevig & Isaksson 2014). 

Pathos and friendship appeals 

Friendship, one of Aristotle’s positive emotions, captures the idea of long-term commitment to “good and bad days”, to mutuality and loyalty.

Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship (Pangle 2008), utility, pleasure, and goodness, can show us how the use of emotions may foster identification and connectedness in municipality website rhetoric.

Comparing the text and visuals of 20 Norwegian and 20 Danish municipal websites (Denmark underwent a municipal reform in 2006/2007) reveals some interesting differences.

Appeals to utility

The Danish municipalities show an overwhelmingly more citizen friendly rhetoric, both for texts and visuals, than their Norwegian neighbours. They also emphasize different friendship values: the Danes primarily use utility appeals, usually as a relationship booster.

In prime examples of Danish utility appeals, the local citizen is met with a multitude of possible everyday needs with succeeding instructions:  “Now, what if … your hedge needs trimming, your child is ready for nursery, you want to tell about a road, you need a new health insurance card”.

Appeals to pleasure

Whereas Norwegian municipalities under-communicate utility, they primarily profile themselves with appeals to pleasure, practically all of them through visuals showing happy people, individuals and groups, children and senior citizens, most of the time engaged in outdoor activities.

Danish municipalities, too, attach great value to pleasure, yet, demonstrate more thematic diversity than the Norwegian ones, such as cultural events, exercise, the outdoor, but also local business and various professions.

Unlike the Norwegian, the Danish visuals are often enhanced with a supplementary text. The link between pleasure and nature is nearly absent on the Danish websites.

Appeals to goodness

Appeals to goodness, the second most common friendship appeal in the Norwegian data, but the least common in the Danish data, usually come in words and texts attributing compassion, self-sacrifice, and benevolence.

Whether the use of goodness appeals is a deliberate strategic choice, is hard to say. Yet, some of the overly “friendly” examples seem to indicate that this might be the case:  “Become a foster or relief family. If, out of the desire of your heart, you want to make a difference for a child?” (DK).

The fact that the goodness appeal has the same prime function in both sets of data, to build citizen relationships, also seems to support its deliberate strategic use.

Friendship as strategy

If Norwegian municipalities want to connect with their citizens, they need to adapt their texts more strategically to friendly citizen-oriented rhetoric to allow identification to take place. To do this, they should:

  • Demonstrate substantially more text content, and more coherent and longer texts
  • Balance carefully utility appeals against appeals to pleasure and goodness
  • Use utility appeals dialogically by inviting citizens to take on the role of providers instead of consumers of services
  • Address entire publics with frequent use of the inclusive pronoun “we”
  • Use dialogue succeeding you-questions to stay close to the individual citizen    
  • Supplement words with citizens’ interpretation of visuals


Aristotle. 1991. The Art of Rhetoric (H.C. Lawson-Tancred, Trans. with Introduction and Notes). London: Penguin Books.

Hoffman, Mary F. og Debra J. Ford. 2010. Organizational Rhetoric: Situations and Strategies. London: Sage.
Pangle, Lorraine, S. 2008/2003. Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Craig, R. & Michael J. Hyde. 1991. “Rethinking the “public”. The role of emotion in being-with-others”. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 77(4), 446-466.
Svennevig, Jan & Maria, Isaksson. 2014. “Språk, retorikk og ledelse”. In Brønn, Peggy, S. & Jan Ketil, Arnulf (eds.) Kommunikasjon for ledere og organisasjoner. Oslo: Fagbokforlaget, 177-197.

This article is first published in Communication for Leaders No. 2 - 2016.

Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 21. December 2016

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