Sword and the Script

Downplaying the theory of PR

PR Theory

Photo credit: Flickr

by Frank Strong

There’s a lot of downplaying going on.

The Sixer’s coach recently downplayed reports of Iverson coming back, a Palin aide downplayed the use of a private jet, and the Dallas Federal Reserve President just downplayed the threat of inflation.

If your not downplaying chances are you are intensifying. Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t quite roll of the tongue like the former, but I don’t mean to downplay intensifying.

Intensify and downplay were the two words communication theorist Hugh Rank chose to frame his persuasion schema in his paper in 1976. Rank’s theory is one of those college papers you stash on a self in an old binder, forget and then rediscover a decade later, almost on accident.

Rank argued that persuasive communications techniques fall into one of two categories — intensify or downplay. A persuasive argument would intensify, or accentuate, positive characteristics while downplaying the less positive. By the same token, a persuasive argument might intensify the negative characteristics about the competition while downplaying the competition’s positives.

Rank then divided both intensify and downplay into three subparts. Intensify consists of repetition, association and composition, while downplay consists omission, diversion and confusion.


  • Repetition is straight forward. Repetition is straight forward. Repetition is straight forward.
  • Association, only slightly more complex, is identifying with something with which an audience has a (positive) preconceived notion. Obama’s presentation style for example, has often been compared with that of Reagan – the great communicator.
  • COMPOSITION deals with the arrangement of messages in patterns of writing, design, imaging or the combination thereof. Rank uses examples like U$A and Nixxon – the later a derogatory reference to former President. In modern times, LOL might be a more fitting example, IMHO.


  • Omission too is straight forward, but rather than repeat it, I’d rather leave that part out.
  • Diversion is also simple, it the concept of introducing another concept, as in answering the question you wish you were asked.
  • Confusion is providing answers so convoluted, no one understands what you are saying. In other words, it’s the quotes that make no sense that have the most meaning.

Though post is intentionally written tongue in cheek, it’s amazing to me how Rank’s theory stands the test of time — even in a social media world. If you want to read Rank’s full text, you’ll have to visit a library; the citation is at the end.

As for Iverson, he reportedly responded with a slam-dunk, the private jet, citing executive privilege, refused comment, and inflation was allegedly amazed to learn that dollars were still being printed.

* * *

Rank, H. (1976). Teaching about public persuasion. In D. Dietrich (Ed.), Teaching and Doublespeak. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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