April 6, 2009

The Rhetoric of Open Letters

Let’s suppose you want make the public aware of a particular situation. And let’s further suppose you think the local newspaper is the proper venue for creating that awareness. You have limited choices: write a letter to the editor or write a longer “voice of the day” type column.

But there is a third option that might entice a reporter to treat your missive as news, e.g. write an open letter to a particular individual. To be most effective, the individual to whom you write needs to be very important, e.g. the President of the United States.

The audience for an open letter is the public (or some sub-set of the public) and rarely the person addressed. Open letters rely on the scheme of apostrophe, in which a speaker switches the audience addressed — most often directly addressing a person not present or an abstract quality. The person addressed may never even read the open letter, which is no problem at all since the person addressed is usually not the real audience.

Let’s suppose you are the superintendent of a large metropolitan school district frustrated by the lack of stimulus money flowing to your “shovel ready” projects, e.g. Norm Ridder of Springfield, Missouri. Writing an open letter to the Governor of the State of Missouri or the state legislature might be a good choice if your purpose is to directly persuade the folks who are actually making many of the decisions about where and how to spend the stimulus money. I’ll let Ridder tell you what his purpose is: “‘We felt the public needed to know about our situation,’ Ridder said, explaining why he wrote the letter.”

Addressing the governor or the legislature in this situation may be shooting too low — bad kairos. If you address the President of the United States, well, you may actually persuade a journalist to write a news article about you — a much better way to generate public awareness than a letter to the editor or local column.

For this to work, however, requires, I would think, a slow news day or an economically-stressed news organization. I mean there’s no way Ridder is dumb enough to think President Obama has any control over how much money the Springfield public schools will get and when they will get it (i.e. it’s an obvious PR stunt). And if he were that dumb, well, that might be your news story.

What we have here is a legitimate story about how the stimulus money will apparently be used: “to offset cuts in the budget — not for school modernization projects.” And Ridder apparently knows when the money is coming: “The district has been told it would receive the money on July 1, Ridder said.”

So this open letter business is simply a (PR-provided) peg on which hang the real story.

I’m fascinated by two things: 1) the successful rhetorical choice of writing an open letter to get the attention of the news media, and 2) the choice of the News-Leader not only pay attention to it but to make it the lead story. There is much important reporting that can and should be done regarding the stimulus and the school district. So perhaps this overplay of a PR effort is, I hope, just the beginning of a thorough examination of the topic by the News-Leader.

Perhaps newspapers need to include open letters on their advertising rate cards. That could have two beneficial effects: people might be discouraged from writing them, and journalists might be discouraged from making news out of them.

2 Responses

  1. Tim 
  2. acline 

    Tim… Cool. I’ll check it out.